Popular advice tells us that it helps to begin with the end in mind – to have a clearly defined goal or vision and work backwards in trying to achieve it.
But what about happiness? Does it work in the same manner? Does it help to say “if only I have x, y and z, then I would be happy”?
The human brain is unique in its ability to sythesize experiences before they actually happen to us. We know instinctively that blueberry chocolate ice-cream would taste awful, or that having our nails pulled out could be excruciatingly painful even without going through those specific experiences. That is because our pre-frontal cortex is great at sythesizing them.
However, the same part of the brain is terrible at guessing whatever makes us happy. It keeps trying, but the harder it tries, the more it stumbles. This is because
– Our world isn’t predictable
– We are bad at defining whatever would end up making us happy
– We are prone to a number of cognitive biases and errors in judgment
Let us consider an example – of planning the perfect vacation. Even after the most meticulous effort, several things outside our control could go wrong. Our flight could get cancelled. We could miss our connecting flight due to a delay. Our baggage could be lost in transit. All of these things can happen in the very first leg of our “perfect” vacation.
If our quest for happiness has this perfect vacation (among several others) as our goal, it is vulnerable to fail in the very first step and cause discontentment. This discontentment causes us to remark, “there is always room for improvement.”
The alternative, is to shift our focus from a set of goals, to experiencing the present moment to the fullest. What if one starts with the assumption that this moment, regardless of what it offers us, is already perfect? When things are already perfect and there is no more “room for improvement”, happiness is complete.
Buddhist monks spend their lifetime internalizing that the present moment is perfect in itself. Under those circumstances, our happiness is immune from any consequence that life throws at us. On a trip, we are immune to flight cancellations, delays and baggage losses. Because unexpected events exist only in the face of tightly defined goals and expectations.
To attach preconditions to our happiness is a powerful illusion that we all fall prey to. To undo it is to learn to recognize the inherent perfection of every moment – expressed simply, but one of the hardest things to achieve.
PS: For elaborations on why we are terrible at being happy, read Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness