Don’t Wait for Happiness. Experience It Now.

I propose discarding the “I can’t wait until I retire” mindset altogether.

Posted Mar 26, 2018

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Delayed gratification is one of the hallmarks of our culture. We have many ways we express this value. There’s short-term delayed gratification, represented by the popular abbreviation TGIF, which describes the Monday through Friday slog that carries us to the weekend—the Promised Land! TGIF’s evil cousin is Manic Monday. Meanwhile, Hump Day is TGIF’s younger sibling.

Then there’s long-term delayed gratification represented by the common refrain, “I can’t wait to retire!” We may repeat that mantra to ourselves for decades. So many ways to describe the contrast between where we are right now, versus where we’d rather be. But is this a healthy way to live? In this post, we’ll explore this subject.

Delayed Gratification

Years ago, when I was completing my doctoral work, a financial advisor approached me and asked, “Can I sit down with you and talk investments?”

At the time, I was a starving student so I didn’t have a penny to invest. But I’d soon be joining the workforce, so I thought he might provide me helpful information for my future.  When we met, he described how, once I began earning money, I needed to allocate a percentage of my income toward my retirement. That way, by the time I reached retirement age, I’d have a comfortable nest egg that would provide me the freedom to do what I wanted. That sounded great to me.

Suddenly, I went from “I need to finish school and start my career” to “When I retire, what will I do? And how much money will I need?” When I look back, I’m amused at how quickly my mind shifted from present worries to entirely different ones literally decades away.

In my private practice, I’ve worked with countless people who have similar struggles. They are worried about the future and work hard to make sure they’ll have enough to support them throughout their retirement. Their thinking is that after they experience a financial windfall after years of exerting themselves in the workforce, the rest of their lives will be great.

On the extreme, hyper-achiever end, they earn a ton of money, sell their companies for millions of dollars, and retire. You may think that with a $100 million nest egg, life would be wonderful. In fact, isn’t that’s a dream-come-true scenario for many of us?

But what happens with many of these individuals may surprise you. If they’re young, say in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, within two years after retiring early, they find themselves lost and bored after spending all their waking hours building companies and amassing wealth. A combination of non-stop drive and an existential crisis are truly terrible bedfellows. The result is often alcohol or drug addiction. While not everyone fits this profile, you’ll find innumerable stories of high achieving men and women who do. So what causes this downward spiral from envy inducing career heights?

Success Doesn’t Make Us Happy

One explanation for this sad scenario is the set point for happiness. This is a psychological term that describes our general level of happiness. Each of us has a different set point—some have a high set point, meaning we are mostly happy; some have a low set point, meaning, we are mostly unhappy; while others fall somewhere in between. Our set point for happiness is based on our genetics and conditioning. While we may have emotional ups and downs throughout our lives, these are temporary. No matter what life throws at us, over time, our happiness bounces back to the same set point.

So when high achievers reach what they designated as the Promised Land, they may be elated at first. But this fades over time and they revert back to their set point of happiness. What a letdown! All that hard work, sacrifice, delayed gratification, and anticipation, just to return to the same (and maybe miserable) place they started. This dissatisfaction leads to finding ways to alleviate it. And the fastest way to do so is through addictions.

One only need to read the pages of People magazine and you’ll find stories of famous people who have what so many of wish for in our lives: Fame, fortune, and career success. Only to read about their stints in rehab to overcome any number of addictions: alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, and more.

“But if I were to reach the heights of success, I’d do things differently,” you may say. The truth is, however, reaching this level of accomplishment requires tremendous sacrifice. Through the years of sacrifice we make, we’re essentially training our selves to be unhappy. So should it come as any surprise that the end result of this process is disappointment?

The Case Against Delayed Gratification

Let’s examine the opposite of delayed gratification using the world’s most famous example of it: The Dalai Lama. I think most of us would agree that His Holiness is a pretty happy person. Through the Dalai Lama’s example, we see how people that are doing well in life, are enjoying their lives right now. Can you imagine him saying, “I can’t wait to retire so I can take lots of vacations and drink martini’s every night”?

There’s no TGIF mentality as far as he’s concerned. He’s not holding off on retirement in order to enjoy life. So if experiencing happiness right now, rather than waiting for it in the future appeals to you, then let’s explore ways to do this.

Nothing Wrong with Saving for Retirement and Enjoying Weekends and Vacations

Striking balance is key. An extreme carpe diem attitude where you spend all you have on vacations and unnecessary purchases is definitely setting yourself up for stress later on. But putting all your energy toward the future is a formula for unhappiness as well. We’re training ourselves to look forward to something later rather than enjoying the present moment. We’re resisting life as it is right now and deferring happiness to a future place in the short or long-term.

Shifting our focus from the future and to the present won’t come naturally at first. Especially if you’ve made a habit of thinking ahead. One step is to challenge conventional wisdom. If you’ve been saying “TGIF,” consider replacing it with something like, “I work every day to find beauty and joy in the present moment, even when it’s difficult.” If you’ve been dreaming of retirement, drop the fantasy and replace it with something along the lines of, “I live in the present moment completely, and the future will take care of itself.”

Bringing awareness to the messages we tell ourselves is key to change. The messages themselves have been deeply embedded in our minds, so changing them won’t happen right away. But with continued and diligent practice, we train our brains to focus on the new statements that value the present. One way to speed up the process is to write down the new phrases. Consider inputting then into your smartphone’s notepad application. When your mind veers into the future, repeat the phrases that are stored in your device.

What begins to happen is that you find moments of pleasure in what you had previously run away from. While weekends, vacations, and retirement is nice, you also enjoy the time between those future dates.

But I HATE My Job!

Some of you may have stayed with me thus far. The message is compelling but the bottom line is work is terrible, and getting through it is an enormous challenge. In fact, sometimes you wish you could leave your job for good. But you have obligations to pay your bills, support your family, and save for the retirement. Trust me, I hear you.

In my private therapy practice, I work with men and women who are fed up with their work, and I take great pleasure in helping them navigate their careers and sometimes steering them in new and exciting directions.  

But wherever you are in your professional path, I’m confident there are steps you can take to increase your workplace happiness and decrease your disdain. Change won’t happen right away. But our minds are powerful. If we commit to making work more pleasurable, then amazing ideas will emerge. Rather than repeat the phrase, “I hate my job!” we can replace it with, “I enjoy and find beauty throughout the day.” And guess what? That’s exactly what happens.

Small changes make a big impact over time. Some simple ideas include eating lunch away from your desk or cubicle, bringing photos that remind us of those we care about, taking a walk outside or just stepping outside for a moment to breathe the air and look at the sky, reducing the amount of time you spend browsing news sites that bring you down, avoiding workplace gossip….I’m sure you think of more ways to increase your workplace quality of life.

Whatever We Focus on Becomes Our Reality

If we place our energy on negative thoughts and events, we are guaranteeing workplace unhappiness no matter how ideal our job is. If we place our energy on positive thoughts and events, we’re going to increase workplace happiness and, more importantly, tap into our inner happiness, which no one can ever take away from us. Gradually, over time, we will develop the mindset that can see the positive in our work.

Reaching that place of workplace peace of mind may currently seem too far away to even imagine, but I encourage you to give it a try. If you don’t like your work now, there’s no harm in spending a few weeks with this challenge of changing your mindset. After all, this may be the place you spend for years, if not decades. It’s far better to enjoy what we do right now than wait until retirement.

Think Present and Future

While what I’ve described so far may seem like I’m recommending you accept your lot in life, and suck it up and be happy with it without changing a thing. But this isn’t the case.

If the status quo is not what you envision for your life, then I’m a firm believer in making the change you want. In other words, you can do your best to enjoy the present and plan for the future. Doing both at the same time isn’t easy, but it is possible.

For instance, let’s say the next stage you see for yourself in your career requires you earn a master’s degree. Then, by all means, pursue it. But your mindset matters here. The “waiting for happiness” approach would say, “I can’t wait to finish my master’s so I can leave terrible my job and make lots of money.”

Meanwhile, the “experience happiness now” approach would say, “I enjoy my work right now, and I’m doing the work to improve my life.” That means you’re actually investing in enjoying life more later on. I think you’d agree that is a worthwhile use of your time.

Seek Happiness Until the End

Lastly, I propose discarding the “I can’t wait until I retire” mindset altogether. Replace it with, “I’ll enjoy what I’m doing until my I die.”

In my case, I can’t imagine retiring from my private therapy practice because I enjoy it so much. And if you know my industry, you realize it’s a high burnout, high turn over job. But because I’ve implemented what you’ve read so far into my career, I’ve avoided the pitfalls of what is often a high-stress profession.

Mind you, as my body gets older, I may need to slow down and adjust, but I hope to keep working until the end. While that may sound utterly absurd and unappealing, just think of many well-known people who have done just that. And not in a workaholic, destructive way, but rather in a healthy, life-affirming way. I pointed out the Dalai Lama earlier. And there are others too such as Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. While these are famous examples, I’ve provided for illustrative purposes, there are countless examples of non-famous people who love what they do, and could never imagine retiring. They enjoy work, right up to the end.

Reflect on what you’re doing now. Can you imagine performing this job until your last breath? If not, then consider steps you can take to eventually lead you to that place. All the while, enjoying, rather than fighting against, the life you lead right now. Loving life now while working toward improving the future is an amazing goal to work toward. And there are men and women, around the world, doing just that. Which means this is possible for you too.