Why do so many of us expect happiness to come at some future date? I can remember being so excited about turning 10 years old – it seemed like such a milestone to my kid brain. Then it was starting junior high-school. Next, being a high-school freshman. As many of us probably did, I couldn’t wait to turn 16 and get my driver’s license and all of the freedom that came with driving yourself around. I couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get to start my “real world” life. Going to college was such an exciting time, but graduating and getting a great job seemed even more exciting! Turning 21 meant finally being able to buy alcohol and go to bars with friends. Later, I finally got the promotion I had wanted for so long.
I am not saying that I wasn’t happy before any these big life events happened, but my belief that those things would miraculously increase my happiness is something we all experience. It is so easy to say you will be happy when you get your degree, when you get the promotion, when you find your life partner, when you get married, when you buy a house, when you finally have some money in the bank, when you get to go on vacation, or when it is the weekend. Sure, many of those things can increase the quality of your life. But if we are constantly looking forward to the next thing, how can we properly enjoy the here and now?
A few of the main ways I am trying to enjoy the present moment is to remember that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, find joy in both the journey and destination, and find balance between having important goals and not letting those goals overshadow where I am right now.
Don’t wish away the present moment in exchange for happiness at some time in the future that may or may not happen and is definitely not guaranteed. As I have aged, one thing has become clearer: tomorrow isn’t a sure thing. If my happiness depends on something in the future, I have given away some of today’s joy to an unknown future; a time that may not come. Memento Mori is a reminder to enjoy the only thing you are guaranteed – the present moment.
Memento Mori is a Latin term which translates to “Remember you must die.” Whether you are five or twenty years old, billionaire or penniless, student or teacher, you will die one day. You can look at this fact as dark and depressing. You can let it get you down. You can let it make you wonder what the point of it all is. Or, you can choose to look at this truth as inspiration to focus on what you can control, enjoy life in all its ups and downs, and get the most out of what you have right now.
Today is the only today you will ever get. Don’t waste it wanting for tomorrow.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story that I look at as a perfect metaphor for other parts of our lives. He says that as a young monk he would often be required to wash many dishes for the older monks, especially during busy times of the year when they would gather for ceremonies. Washing the dishes can easily be seen as a cumbersome chore. However, the zen master writes:
I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.
With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.
I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.
Our lives are a product of what we repeatedly do; what we practice becomes habit and our habits shape many of our thoughts and actions consciously and unconsciously. What is beautiful about the story above is to practice being in the present moment during times that may seem unpleasant so that you build that as a habit for times that seem pleasant. Thich Nhat Hahn’s story illustrates that if you spend all of your time doing chores, errands, or other requirements thinking of nothing but what you want to do afterwards, you are in fact training yourself to only think of the future. Over time, this will creep out of the unpleasant things and into the pleasant things because you’ve trained your mind to think in that way.
If you spend your entire work week wishing for the weekend, you are training your mind to also look forward to the next thing during the weekend; this detracts from your enjoyment of the “free” time you so coveted. If you spend months wishing for your upcoming vacation, you are training yourself not to be present with family and friends on that trip. If you constantly look into the future for happiness, you will miss all of the wonderful things that are happening right now. We must train our minds to appreciate each moment for what it is, whether it can be perceived as good or bad, so that we can be more present and aware in all moments.
Catch yourself when you are looking forward to things. Not to say that looking forward to things is bad, but that to make it an unconscious habit is bad. As there are seasons in a year, there are seasons in life. If you spend the cold dark days of winter wishing for nothing but spring, you will be more likely to wish for nothing but the long hot days of summer as you miss the joy of the grass growing, the birds chirping, and the flowers blooming for the first time that year. If you spend the long hot days of summer wishing for crisp fall nights around a fire, you will be more likely to spend those wonderful fireside nights thinking of the next thing. At each moment you will be missing the beauty right in front of you. As Memento Mori teaches us, those points in the future are not a sure thing and to miss the beauty of now because of some wish for later does a disservice to us and those around us.
It’s Such a Beautiful Rainy Day
Josh Waitzkin, chess grandmaster, jui jitsu blackbelt, and bestselling author shared something he is teaching his son while being interviewed by Tim Ferriss for The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Josh tells a story about teaching his young son, Jack, how language and perspective changes the way you see the world. Josh says:
One of the biggest mistakes that I observed in the first year of Jack’s life or year or two of Jack’s life that I observed with parents is that they have this language around weather; weather being good or bad. Whenever it was raining, they’d be like, it’s bad weather. You’d hear moms, babysitters, dads talk about if it’s bad weather, we can’t go out or if it’s good weather, we can go out. So that means that somehow we’re externally reliant on conditions being perfect in order to be able to go out and have a good time. So Jack and I never missed a single storm. Every rain storm.
I don’t think we’ve missed one storm, other than one maybe when he was sick. But I don’t think we’ve missed a single storm, rain or snow, going outside and romping in it. We developed this language around how beautiful it was. So now whenever there’s a rainy day, Jack says, “Look, Da-Da. It’s such a beautiful rainy day.” And we go out and we play in it.
I wanted him to have this internal locus of control. To not be reliant on external conditions being just so.
Don’t wish away the present moment because it isn’t “perfect.” Enjoy what is for what it is. You don’t control things like the weather, but you do control your perception of the weather and how the weather makes you feel. Don’t miss out on the beauty of a rainy day because you just wish for it to be sunny.
How to be Present AND Driven
James Clear, author of the New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits, writes about delayed happiness in his blog. Clear writes that society tells us being dissatisfied with the present moment is a good thing. Clear writes:
We hear about athletes that are never satisfied until they have reached the top. We hear about entrepreneurs who worked like crazy to build a business that changed the world. The basic idea is that to be driven, you also have to be dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with second place. Dissatisfied with average.
Then you have the other side of the equation: people who are happy with life as it is. They say that you need to develop the skill of “not wanting more.” That you can be happy where you are right now. That you are already perfect.
The problem with these seemingly opposite viewpoints is that they create an either or dynamic. Either you are dissatisfied with the present and it drives you to be successful OR you are satisfied and content and not driven to get better. This is an incorrect way to view the issue. Many of us want to chase our goals. We want to have big plans for the future. But as I discussed above, we can’t let that type of thinking take away some of the joy we have right now. So how do we balance the pursuit of goals with the enjoyment of the moment? Clear explains:
Guess what? This answer is now easy. If you love the practice of what you do, if you love the daily work, then you can be happy before and after you achieve your goals.
When you learn to love the process of what you are doing and not focus so much on the goal, you automatically find happiness while staying driven.
If you learn to love the practice of working out, then you’ll be happy right now and you’ll see results later. If you learn to love the practice of marketing your business, then you’ll be happy right now and you’ll see results later. If you learn to love the practice of supporting your friends and family, then you’ll be happy now and see the results later.
Happy and driven. Just one more reason why the system is better than the goal.
The answer, Clear writes, is easy. You can love every present moment AND be happy about events on the horizon. We can train our minds to love the journey and the destination equally; by practicing loving the current moment in pursuit of a goal, we have increased the likelihood we will love the current moment when we achieve our goal. Our habit is to love the present moment, no matter what that present moment is.
As I write this, I am just a few months shy of my 30th birthday – another moment viewed as a milestone. But today I am enjoying being today years old. My wife is reading her book next to me, my dog is napping below us on his bed, and the weather outside is turning from a sunny morning to an afternoon of thunderstorms. And I love it. This day is not unlike many others, but it is also unlike all others. This moment is the only time I will get to experience this moment. Sure, I might think of our friend coming to visit next week, or trip to Maui next month, or the summer arriving soon and look forward to all of those things. But I won’t let my excitement for the future take away any of the joy I have right now. In the words of Adam Grant:
Happiness is not a function of what you achieve. It’s a function of how you spend your time. Success is a temporary thrill. Happiness lies in doing daily activities that bring you joy. There’s always a new mountain to climb. You don’t have to anchor your emotions to the summit.
Sources and Inspiration:
- Memories from the Root Temple: Washing Dishes, by Thich Nhat Hanh, November 13, 2018,
- Stop Waiting to Be Happy, By Steve Rizzo, July 29, 2014, https://www.success.com/stop-waiting-to-be-happy/
- Do You Have to be Unhappy Now if You Want to be Successful Later?, by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/happy-driven
- Here’s Why Waiting for Happiness is a Complete Waste of Time, BY CHRISTINA DESMARAIS, https://www.inc.com/christina-desmarais/heres-why-waiting-for-happiness-is-a-complete-waste-of-time.html