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Happiness is a state of mind, not a goal. The life you want is here, now, waiting for you to grab it. Too many of us spend our lives planning and hoping and dreaming about how wonderful our life would be...if only we got a promotion, met the right person, or inherited some money. We say we'll be happy when we lose those stubborn 30 pounds or pay off our mortgage. The poet Philip Larkin wrote:
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say...
We act as if our happiness depends on other people, on fate, or on forces beyond our control. As a result we fail to see how wonderful our life is right now, today. Pin your hopes on the future and you'll miss your chance. Of all the things we need to deal with in our lives, time can be the hardest to get a handle on. Obviously, the past is that which has already occurred. But that's both something that happened 30 years ago and something that happened 30 seconds ago. Your high school prom is in the past, but so is the sentence you've just completed reading. As for the future, clearly it's something that hasn't occurred yet. Your plans for dinner are in the future, but so is the next ice age.
What's amazing is that the present is this narrow shadow, this hair's breadth of time, yet it has the possibility of providing all the joy and contentment we need. That's because the present isn't so much a space in time as it is a state of mind. The mistake many people make is trying to live in the future. The present seems like a train, a total blur. The future seems to stretch out before us infinitely, giving us plenty of time in which to land new jobs, meet life mates, or learn to play the piano. It's easy to believe your hopes and dreams and goals can all be fulfilled tomorrow.
But this is an illusion. It may look clear and inviting, but it never actually arrives. When you look to the future for your happiness, you guarantee you'll never be happy. Focus on the present. It's the experience of living, not remembering or hoping. Let's say you're sitting in a theater, watching a great movie or play, or you're in a concert hall, listening to a wonderful performance. You're not thinking of the drive home or what you'll eat for dinner. You're in the moment. Bring that approach to life and you'll achieve contentment. I'm not saying you shouldn't plan for tomorrow. Short- and long-term planning is prudent. I believe that includes deciding when to start a family as much as calculating when to ask for a raise, or determining how much to save and invest for when you get older and your earned income drops. But there is a huge difference between planning for the future and living in it. You can't count on the future to provide or be the environment that offers you happiness or satisfaction you currently lack. That's a critical mistake.
While you're making plans to be happy in the future, things happen, good and bad. Life doesn't stand still just because you've made a mental calculation freezing it in place.
How do you stop living in the future? Realize the only thing you lack in the present is gratitude. I know, I'm sure there are things missing in your life. Maybe you're lonely or out of work or your child is ill. But you still have things to be grateful for. If nothing else, be grateful you're alive.
The people who seem most able to live in the present are those who have come face-to-face with their own mortality. Having come through a life-threatening situation, they look on every subsequent day of life as a wonderful gift. That's what happened to me.
In 1978 I was a 48-year-old businessman. I had a lovely wife and four incredible children. We had recently moved into a new 12-room apartment in New York City. During the summer the whole family stayed at a house we'd built on Martha's Vineyard. Was I happy? No, because I was living in the future. Not only couldn't I stop and smell the roses, I couldn't stop and smell dinner on the table since I didn't get home until 10 p.m. I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and my only workout was bending my elbow.
As part of my unending climb up Mount Olympus, I took a job as the real estate specialist for an international bank headquartered on Wall Street. After a brief time on the job I started feeling under the weather. After a month of procrastination I finally went to see our family doctor, Dr. Dove. He heard my smoker's cough and listened to my labored breathing and immediately ordered a chest x-ray. Two days later, Dr. Dove called to say they found a troubling black spot on my lung. He gave me a tuberculosis test that came back negative but scheduled a follow-up x-ray. He set up consultations for me with cancer specialists and pushed for a biopsy on the spot.
While we were waiting for the biopsy results, my wife and I talked through all the obstacles we faced to keep the family afloat. There were mortgages, tuitions, and medical bills. I thought I'd be out of work, perhaps forever, and we couldn't get by on my wife's secretarial job. Things looked grim, to put it mildly. Then Dr. Dove came into the hospital room and said, "Congratulations, you do have tuberculosis." At that moment, my life turned around.
I was given a reprieve. I felt that every day from that point on was a gift from God. When I was going over the list of material things I'd stand to lose, I realized I would have given them all up to spend another day with my wife and children. Now here I was, told I would have that day and many more to follow. That pivotal event made me stop living in the future. Now I'm grateful for everything I have and covet nothing other than more years with my family. I realized that what I lacked for those first 48 years of life was gratitude for what I already had. I didn't appreciate that every day is a priceless gift. I didn't understand that tomorrow was too late.
Going through experiences like these can help you move from living in the future to living in the present. But as much as I value the insight I gained, I don't recommend the process I went through to earn it. Thankfully, you can work toward the same awareness with a lot less pain. All you need do is take inventory.
Take out a journal and write on the top of the page: "Things for which I'm grateful." Start by writing, "I'm alive," and move on from there, filling as many pages as you need. Start by concentrating on those you love: family, friends, and pets. Then move on to the places you love. The list could include special spots that have always brought you serenity, or it could consist solely of your home. You might write something like, "I'm grateful for our apartment overlooking the harbor." It might also consist of magical places you've visited.
Turn to things you value. I know people always rail against materialism, but let's be honest: There are things that give us joy. It could be your favorite chair, your new car, or a cherished piece of jewelry. No one is going to read your list, so don't feel self-conscious.
I know it might feel a bit corny to sit there compiling lists of things for which you're grateful. But I think most of us have grown too cynical about our lives. We've stopped appreciating what we have. That's one of the reasons we tend to live in the future. Our culture has become fixated on improvements, whether to our home, our relationships, or our bodies. Well, you have everything you need right now to be happy.
On the days when you're feeling down, turn back to the list you've compiled and reread it. Then, after a few minutes' reflection, add some new entries to the list. You'll find that whenever you spend time looking for reasons your life right now is good, you end up finding them.
Another way to make yourself feel better is to tell people you're grateful to have them in your life. This needn't be formal or part of a ritualized Thanksgiving. Instead, when an opportunity arises, just thank people for coming into your life. Let's say you're sitting at a coffee shop after work, sharing a good laugh with a friend. Just turn to her and say something like, "I have a great time with you. Thanks for being my friend." That's not so hard, is it? But believe me, such a little gesture will mean a lot to the other person and that will make you feel great, too.
The poet Alastair Reed wrote something so eloquent about the joys of childhood: "The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invariably dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all, it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything at all until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is...."
Life shouldn't be something to be endured until the future arrives. Your present should be thrilling, exhilarating, and inspiring. And it can be if you embrace it. My wish for you is that you're able to somehow get back to the joy you experienced as a child. As far as I can tell, we all only get one chance at this. We might as well enjoy ourselves while we're here. Sure, there's pain and sorrow. So don't defer the exhilaration and joy until some nonexistent tomorrow. Let yourself be happy now.
From the forthcoming book It's All in Your Head: Thinking Your Way to Happiness, by Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine. Copyright 2006 by Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine. Published by arrangement with Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Originally excerpted in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2006.