One of my most enduring memories from childhood is of my mother warning me, usually as I was getting ready to play a game of cricket with my friends, to “work hard now, so that you can relax and enjoy in the future.” I can, to this day, vividly remember feeling fragmented by my desire to play with my friends on the one hand, and the pressure to obey my mother’s dictum on the other. Chances are that if you come from a family that values education and believes that “enjoyment should be earned and not taken for granted,” you can relate to this feeling of fragmentation, which is really the feeling of being torn between the desire to enjoy the present and the concern that enjoying the present may jeopardise the future.
At first blush, it might appear that the future orientation that our parents, teachers and well-wishers instill in us is a good thing. Indeed, most of us believe that we didn’t receive a strong-enough dose of “far-sightedness” in our formative years. Many of us believe that we give in to temptation (e.g., eating a tasty dessert) too easily, that we are lazier than we would like to be (e.g., we procrastinate too often), or that we don’t save enough for the future. Thus, many of us carry with us significant anxiety about the future and guilt about our inability to control our myopic impulses.
Suffer Now, Be Happy Later
One would think that we would be averse to experiencing these negative emotions. However, that is not the case. In fact, most of us don’t want to rid ourselves of these negative emotions. Why? Because, at some level, we feel that these negative emotions are justified — we feel that we deserve to feel guilty for eating that tasty-but-unhealthy cake or that we deserve to feel anxious because we aren’t saving enough for the future. Moreover, we believe that the guilt and anxiety serve a purpose, that they goad us to adopt the far-sighted perspective that has so far eluded us. For example, we believe that guilt will lead us to make healthier food choices and that anxiety will drive us to save more money in the future.
Whether or not guilt and anxiety lead us to adopt a more far-sighted perspective, they certainly fuel the zeal with which we admonish our children to curb their impulsivity. The greater the guilt we feel from giving in to our impulses, the stronger the warnings to our children become. The more insecure we feel about our future, the more feverishly we goad our children to achieve the security that is eluding us. Thus, most of us end up doling out precisely the kind of advice that we used to abhor receiving as children, and by doing so, we ensure that our children and future generations will be just as fragmented as we currently are.
The irony of the “suffer now, be happy later” philosophy is that the happy future never arrives. As the saying goes, “tomorrow never comes.” Thus, we discover — usually when it is too late and we are “shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” to quote the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song — that we were happiest as children, and that future orientation comes at a significant cost to our present happiness.
A smart person will realise that a life of constant vigilance about the future is not good, but he will also recognise that the solution is not to completely ignore the future. In other words, he will realise the importance of striking a fine balance between trading off current enjoyment for future enjoyment.
How does one execute this trade-off? What can you do to maximise your overall — that is, the combination of present and future — enjoyment? This is the question to which I turn in the rest of this article. In brief, there are four principles that you can use to maximise overall happiness from life.
Knowing What is Enough
The first principle has to do with recognising a simple, yet profound, truth: There is nothing in the material world that can make you feel fully and completely secure about your future. In other words, there is no amount of money, fame, power and control that can guarantee that you no longer need to worry about the future. When you attain the amount of money or success that you once thought would be enough to finally feel secure, you realise that you want even more.
This doesn’t mean that a person who doesn’t have any savings shouldn’t aim to save for the future. Rather, it means that once you embark on the journey of ensuring that your future is secure and comfortable, you should be careful to not fall prey to the desire to go beyond what is enough to secure your “basic needs,” because if you do, you run into the danger of being caught in a never-ending spiral that makes you perpetually future-oriented.
In other words, if you believe that the amount of money or possessions you currently have — and the revenue stream that you can reasonably expect in the future — guarantee that you and those who depend on you will never go hungry or without a roof over your heads, you should ease off on being far-sighted and focus, instead, on enjoying the present.
Most people are afraid to do this, however, because they fear that if they take their eyes off the future, those around them who continue to be hungry for future success will overtake them in the “game of life.” This leads us to the second principle.
The second principle is based on another basic truth: Success is determined more by the pursuit of intrinsic motivation than by the desire for extrinsic rewards.
As Simon Sinek, leadership expert and author of Start with Why, articulates so well in his TED talk, and as several other scholars have noted, most of us mistakenly believe that success comes from being driven by the desire to be successful, wealthy or superior. In reality, success comes to those who have invested a considerable amount of time, effort and energy into pursuing something in which they are truly and inherently interested — their “passion” or “calling.” Most of the successful people we can think of — be it Steve Jobs and Narayan Murthy from the business world, or Mozart and AR Rahman from the music world — have invested several thousands of hours completely immersed in an activity of deep personal interest to themselves. It is the expertise that they gained in the domain of their choosing that was instrumental in their success, not their desire to be rich and famous.
Thus, the second principle has to do with sacrificing your present enjoyment for future enjoyment only when doing so helps improve a skill that you enjoy exercising — and not when it is aimed at enhancing your future wealth, fame, power or control.
Developing the ‘Satisficer’ mindset
The third principle has to do with developing what Barry Schwarz, author of the book, The Paradox of Choice, calls the “satisficer” (as opposed to the “maximiser”) mindset. Imagine that you are on vacation in the Maldives. You had expected to spend time lazing on the beach, but unfortunately, after you arrived, it began to rain and now you are stuck in your hotel room. How would you react?
If you are a maximiser, your mind will constantly turn to your “ideal state” of the world (e.g., the weather is sunny) and you will start to feel frustrated about the current state of affairs. As a result, you will complain to those around you, which in turn will generate negativity around you. Instead, if you adopt a “satisficer” mindset, your attention will turn to maximising your enjoyment given the current constraints. You will not get caught up in trying to change things, but rather, will attempt to be as happy as you can be given the current reality.
Most of us, especially those of us who have been conditioned by the value of far-sightedness, constantly operate from the maximiser mindset. That is, whatever may be the situation in which we find ourselves, our mind is occupied by the desire to improve the situation. Consequently, we forget to enjoy the positives of the situation and instead worry about its negatives.
Shifting from the maximiser to the satisficer mindset is not easy, particularly as the maximiser mindset has proven useful to us in the past. Indeed, trying to fix the “negatives” is an important way of generating new ideas. However, the truth is that if we allow the maximiser mindset to govern us, rather than making sure that we govern it, we will likely never be able to relax and enjoy the present moment. Enjoying the present — as children do so naturally — involves the ability to temporarily put on hold the maximiser mindset and replace it with the satisficer mindset.
How does one decide when to adopt a “satisficer” versus a “maximiser” mindset?
Only you can decide when you would rather be a satisficer than a maximiser in a particular situation, but one thing is certain: If you never feel like adopting the satisficer mindset (e.g., you are on maximiser mode even when you are on a beach vacation and the weather is glorious), then something is wrong. I would go so far as to say that you should try to operate from the satisficer mindset for at least one or two hours each day as the situation warrants. Thus, when you are with your family and friends or by yourself, when you aren’t thinking of work or can’t work even if want to, you can exercise the satisficer mindset by being grateful for all the positives in your life, rather than complain about all the negatives in it.
Over time, as you practise the satisficer mindset, you will discover that most of us operate from the maximiser mindset for far longer than is useful for us, either from the perspective of enhancing happiness or from that of being productive. The truth is, the less we are preoccupied with the desire to control and change the external environment, the more relaxed we will be, and hence, the more creative we will become. Numerous studies have shown a direct and strong correlation between being relaxed and creativity.
Guilt is not Good
The fourth and final principle, like the third, has to do with unlearning. In this case, it is about unlearning the belief that the guilt, stress and anxiety that we experience when we feel insecure about the future are useful.
The truth is that the guiltier we feel and the more anxious we become, the less capable we are of focusing on the really important future priorities in our lives. Studies show that the more stressed and guilty we feel about consuming unhealthy-but-tasty food, the greater is our propensity to consume such food in the future. Likewise, studies have also found that the more insecure and stressed we feel, the less weight we accord to our intrinsic motivations over extrinsic rewards. Thus, far from helping us become far-sighted in the right ways, guilt and anxiety take us in the opposite direction: they steer us towards decisions that erode our future happiness.
The most reliable way to overcome guilt and anxiety is to recognise that these emotions are the symptoms of a more deep-rooted problem: the problem of being conditioned by a society in which everyone is feverishly and intensely insecure about the future. Only by being able to accept — without passing judgment — the fact that you have been conditioned over several decades to experience future-oriented guilt and anxiety, will you be able to shed these feelings. The more you are at peace with this truth, the greater the speed with which you will be able to shed your conditioning and the faster you will arrive at the capacity to reside in the moment.
When you do arrive at the point where you can routinely — and seemingly at will — experience the bliss of an unfragmented mind, you will recognise an all-important truth: the conventional notions of far-sightedness, which emphasise sacrificing present enjoyment for future money, power, fame and control are, in fact, severely myopic. They steer us toward a life in which we will never be happy, either in the present or in the future.
Given that everything we do — including our pursuit of wealth, fame, power, control and success —is aimed at leading a happier and more fulfilling life, what can be more myopic than sacrificing both our short-term and long-term happiness?
Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free!) online course on happiness