Someone once told me a secret to happiness I’ve never forgotten: “You always need to have two things to look forward to.”
“Why two?”, I asked.
“You need one so that you can look ahead and know something exciting is on the horizon. And you need to a second so that you don’t get depressed when the first one ends.”
I’m pretty certain there is no one secret to happiness. But that advice for some reason has stayed with me for years, probably because it accords with something I’ve observed in my own life: happy people seem to always see good things in their future.
I did a quick exercise and asked myself what I’m looking forward to:
- A trip to Miami with friends and family in June.
- The challenge of running my first marathon I’m running next month (or maybe I’m just looking forward to it being over).
- Going to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 this evening with a good friend…and popcorn…and maybe pizza later (yea, that marathon is gonna be tough).
There have been a number of studies proving the importance of anticipation for positive joy.
The theory, according to Psychologies magazine, is that ‘We tend to experience more intense emotions about future events than those in the past. This is because, on the whole, we have an expectation that future events will make us feel more emotional than ones that have passed.’
In a study in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology, researchers Van Boven and Ashworth (2007) found that people had a more intense emotional reaction when thinking about an upcoming ski holiday in the future than one they took in the past.
This gels pretty well with real life.
People who seem happier always seem to see good horizons ahead, whether it’s more success, more romance, more fun, or more exciting adventures. And the most depressed people seem to be those who believe their best days are behind them.
But what about living in the present? What about mindfulness, which teaches us to live in the NOW, appreciate every moment, and forget that future and past even exist? As a big supporter of the science behind mindfulness, I sometimes find this a little difficult to square in my head, given the benefits of positively anticipating the future.
The obvious danger of always looking to a future event is that you might constantly imagine “I will be finally happy when THIS happens”.
We end up telling ourselves: “I’m going to truly enjoy myself when I’m gliding down a mountain in the French Alps.” Then we finally get there and feel a sense of disappointment when our feet are cold, our legs are aching, and we wonder why we ever thought skiing was a good idea for a vacation in the first place.
The solution, I’ve learnt, is not to delay enjoyment. It’s simply to actively enjoy the process of looking forward to something. You still live in the present moment, but sometimes you take ten minutes to enjoy fantasizing about your trip, or looking up places and restaurants you want to go to when you get there, or picking the gear you’ll need – but you still focus on enjoying the current moment, even if that current moment is looking to the future.
It’s a big difference from: “I’ll be happy when I do X later this year”. Instead it’s, “It makes me happy when I think about doing X later this year”.
This doesn’t have to be limited to holidays and big trips. You can even book a dinner with a friend one work night this week and blissfully lose yourself in your work for the rest of the day knowing you have a great experience coming later.
So here’s today’s challenge
What are THREE things can you schedule to look forward to?
- One for the next week.
- One for the next 6 months
- One related to friends, family, or an upcoming goal.
Let me know in the comments below!