Yesterday as I was leaving Cork Coffee Roasters, I walked by Unbound, an adorable little gift shop, and saw a sagacious thought for the day. In the window display sat a letter board which reminded passersby to “never let the things you want make you forget the things that you have.” And although the general (and generally vague) concepts of contentment, gratitude and thankfulness are all around us, especially this month with the American Thanksgiving, I felt this was a particularly powerful prompt in light of what I had read recently in Juliet B. Schor’s The Overspent American. She cited a study which reported that “61 percent of respondents ‘always have something in mind that [they] look forward to buying’ [and] 27 percent… said they ‘dream about things they do not own’ very often.” People were easily able to list specific things that they would like to someday own or do (6.3 items on average) and “consumption wishes outnumbered idealistic ones by three to one.” Of course, I will not pretend that I am any less materialistic than the participants of that study, however seeing the sign in the window also made me consider other ways that I inconspicuously allow what I want to be more important that what I already have. And as I headed back home (happily sipping my Americano) I contemplated why it’s important to enjoy the process and learn ways to be happy along the way.
Many people believe that they will finally be happy when they get that promotion, get married, buy a new house, lose 10 pounds, or reach some other goal. Unfortunately, it’s an unending spiral of climbing and desire – there will only ever be one more thing or condition standing between you and that seeming elusive attainment of happiness. Due to what is known as the “arrival fallacy,” articulated by Harvard psychologist Tal Ben- Shahar, we often mistakenly believe that we will be happy when we arrive at a destination. When we do arrive at that juncture or accomplish our goal we are often disillusioned with less feelings of satisfaction than expected or we otherwise fail to recognize and appreciate what has been gained. Although it may seem cliché, the joy really is in the process. According Ben-Shahar, our focus on the goal as we work to achieve it, activates reward centers within the brain and therefore the “pre-goal attainment positive affect,” or good feeling you get when you see yourself making progress, is the actually the greatest contributor to happiness. Along the journey, we may go through ups and downs, meet interesting people, or learn valuable lessons which bring far greater satisfaction and contentment than the actual achievement itself.
I will be the first to admit that I tend to be a perfectionistic achievement addict and for better and worse, I am always striving for continuous improvement, growth, gold stars, and “more” in nearly every aspect of my life. Although in many ways this drive and ambitiousness serves me well, it can also be a problem when I allow my constant striving to take away from the joy of the moment. While goals, dreams and future plans are all well and good, I find I do often fail to recognize and appreciate where I am and am seldom satisfied which what I have accomplished. Rather than constantly thinking about what is next on the list or raising my standards and expectations as soon as I reach a milestone, I want to spend more time celebrating progress and those achievements along the way. I want to spend more time enjoying the process.
Enjoying the process starts with lightening up, allowing yourself to have fun and learning to laugh. It means not picking yourself apart or being excessively self-critical which can lead to frustration, dissatisfaction, and self-consciousness that keeps you from taking chances or trying new things. It means less comparing yourself to others, what they have or do, and less comparing your present situation to a glorified future when you suddenly become happy. It means forcing yourself to be aware and focus on appreciating what you do have and where you are today.
And when it comes to building healthy habits, celebrate the small wins and your continual progress, even when it’s not linear. Realize that each day that you invest in eating healthy or working out has a cumulative effect. More important (and more rewarding) than losing 10 pounds is as Ben-Shahar writes, “[enjoying] the journey on our way toward a destination that we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”