23 October, 2017
The choice between being happy at the present time or in the future - this is one of the most common and repetitive dilemmas we face and that traumatizes most of us. Should I eat this piece of cake or stick to the decision to lessen twice the sugar today? Do I save up to now or go to the dream cruise? Should I change my job with a less busy one but with lower salary or continue in this madness and chaos, because the money is worth it? Can I tell my boss directly that he is inconclusive or to be silent because he promised me a raise at the end of the year?
Animals - the species closest to us on the planet, do not have such dilemmas (or at least we have not yet known it). This is because they simply follow their instincts: do not worry if they eat unhealthy food - they just eat while they quench their hunger. Similarly, animals do not get conundrums whether they should run or fight their attacker - they just take a quick decision and execute it. On the other hand, it is precisely in our ability to worry and plan the future that our advantage over other animals lies. That's why we dominate other species. Studies show that people who are more concerned about the future postpone the present happiness in the name of future happiness do better in life as measured by standard criteria of success.
And yet, it is not clear who really "wins" - whether the conscious planner who postpones the present happiness in the name of the future or the hedonist who "lives for the moment", pursuing the maximum happiness now.
There is no clear answer. What most people would agree, however, is this: there is no point in worrying about the future, because if we do, we will never be happy in the present. In the same way, most people would also agree with the statement that it is not right to be short-sighted and narrow-minded, and to think that the future does not matter at all, once we are super-present.
But where does the golden middle lie? Under what conditions should we be willing to sacrifice the present happiness in the name of future happiness?
This is the "billion-dollar question". And surely the answer is not unmistakable for everyone.
Let's try to look for the answer to people who are educated, with higher than average earnings, with nice, in most cases meaningful work, and define themselves as more intelligent and better realized than others. This group of people, Raj Raghunathan, the American marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called "The Smart and the Successful", SS in his book, "If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?" These people naturally use higher standards in their work, are more satisfied financially, and hence the belief that they are happier. But are they really happier?
Here's a typical SS person's thought:
"I am very busy. The moment is of the utmost importance for the organization's future (department, etc.). There are continuously flying emails, telephone conversations, and from morning till night I'm involved in meetings and important conversations. I do not let the phone out of my hand, even in the evening when it pops out, I immediately reach for it - because it may be urgent. I'm really overwhelmed but will have to survive for another two or three months (at worst, six to eight) when this is over and I can go on holiday and recover from stress. I'll spend two or three weeks and I'm really going to die. Then I will completely change my daily routine: I will spend more time with my family, I will eat regularly and properly, I will do sports, I will meet and try some healthy practices for which I cannot find time and strength for a long time. And everything will come in its place - I'll be better and more relaxed now. "
Do we really have to sacrifice happiness in the present time for the sake of happiness in the future? Perhaps there is no universal answer that everyone agrees to. But there are some general guidelines that could help us choose the solution that works best for us. To better understand these guidelines, check out the picture below. Axe X represents Happiness in the present, and axe Y is the Happiness in the Future Time:
In this picture, the lower left quadrant (quadrant 1) is not important: it represents activities (for example, drinking a carbonated beverage only to choose a random example) that are neither good for the present nor have the potential to improve our future happiness. None of us would think and waste time on those.
The other three quadrants are important. Obviously, we would like to spend most of our time in quadrant 3, but often - more often than we would like - we make choices between activities that fall in quadrants 2 and 4. And how to fill our lives with quadrant 3 activities?
The obvious approach that is being studied by many social psychologists and other scientists involves two steps: 1) identifying the activities that have the greatest potential to improve both our current and future happiness and 2) investing (time, money and efforts) in these activities. This may surprise some of you, but it turns out that most of us are generally bad in investing in activities that have great potential to improve both the present and future happiness. Numerous studies prove that we take great pleasure in spending time with our friends and family, and it turns out that this activity - which can be seen as an investment in our social capital - has very good potential to improve our happiness - and future. Yet most of us spend less time in such activities than they should. Similarly, other studies prove the importance of maintaining a hobby, especially a type that involves interacting with other people, such as tennis. Hobbies improve our present and future satisfaction with what we do, and yet most of us invest less resource in maintaining a hobby than it should.
There are two main reasons why we tend to invest less in quadrant 3. Firstly, public messages, especially in capitalist cultures, tend to undermine the importance of such activities compared to activities that involve raising our public status. We are constantly being bombarded with messages that remind us of "the importance of being successful/significant." This enables us to give some meaning to the criteria with which the society values: money, power, achievement, glory, beauty, and so on. So, we find ourselves in a position where we prioritize external (instead of internal) rewards and choose our career which gives us these external awards such as position, salary, etc., leaving us with a limited resource to focus on things important to us such as social / personal contacts, hobbies or in-house growth.
Secondly, once we have created a particular lifestyle, it is very difficult to get away from it. Those of us who are caught in the race to prove superiority to others, as in a trap, are likely to be surrounded or to surround ourselves with ones like us. This company, in turn, strengthens the importance of pursuing the external awards that others are also pursuing. This creates a vicious circle that makes us richer in terms of external awards, but poorer in terms of prosperity. Unfortunately, in our daily lives and surrounding environments, it is very difficult to escape this way of life - that is the only way we and the people we are living with. Of course, there are other reasons - our addiction to some expensive habits, the lack of energy and time for anything but work, and so on. - all this makes lifestyle changes so difficult to accomplish.
Therefore, it is not surprising that nothing changes in our way of life despite the recommendations of social psychologists. Society continues to exhort us to pursue external awards and we obey these exhortations as well-dressed monkeys. Another problem in pursuing external awards is that they make us work harder now for the sake of future happiness, but the promised future happiness never comes close to us. Or if it does, it is too short. Thus, for those who participate in the race, it starts out as a promising journey, including a temporary delay of the present satisfaction in the name of a relatively constant future happiness, but ending with an endless sprint, in which any abrupt stop can be fatal to us. We often do not realize that we have been deceived to sacrifice both our present and future happiness until it is too late. This is the reason why many people at the end of their life say that if they were given the opportunity to start their lives from the beginning, they would lead a slower life to give them time and opportunity to pay more attention to the little joys in life, not to pursue great goals and awards.
Despite all this, the race turns out to be irresistible.
But is there still a way that can help us prioritize and spend more time in quadrant 3 activities?
Surprisingly, there is one approach that has proven to be effective - the practice of awareness. Consciousness means keeping all our attention at the current moment - no matter how pleasant or unpleasant it is. This means, for example, that we focus on the conversation we are currently leading, even if we are supressed by other urgent problems. Imagine that you have just received a malicious email from an angry colleague. Your instinctive response may be to react in a similar way, but we only increase the chances of an unproductive conflict. By practicing consciousness, we acquire the ability to withdraw and choose our answer. As you can easily imagine, the flexibility in the answer can be very useful in interpersonal situations, especially in more complex ones.
Prof. Raj Raghunathan, in his publication for the online edition of Psychology Today, says that awareness improves our present and future happiness for three main reasons. First, when we are aware - we are not worried about the future. This stems directly from the definition of awareness: focus on the present. The present may be unpleasant, but we only increase its discomfort when adding worries about the future. Usually, when dealing with unpleasant activity - like a boring conversation - we cannot stop thinking about all the nice or important things we can do instead. This makes us feel even more unhappy. If instead we focused entirely on the boring conversation, we would feel less unhappy.
People who practice regular awareness - say they reach a surprising insight: even activities that were initially unpleasant to them are far less unpleasant when they stop being kidnapped and thinking about the future. In other words, activities (such as sports training) that we initially placed in quadrant 2 (low luck in the present, great happiness in the future) are activities that we can now place in Quadrant 3.
Let's go back to the case with the boring conversation. The more we distract ourselves from side-thoughts and worries, the more we move away from the opportunity to finish the conversation faster and even more skilfully. So, if we make the effort to keep an eye on the boring conversation, we would find some details easier, like a pleasant smell that would bring up a nice memory, or the strikes of the clock’s arrows, to slip in the conversation that night is coming and politely to put an end to it. This is because when we are aware, we can more easily generate interesting and appropriate associations, and in turn use them to make conversations more engaged.
The third reason that developing awareness can help us in quadrant 3 is perhaps the most important reason. It is precisely awareness that gives us greater clarity how to make a compromise between present and future happiness. Realizing people tend to take on less tasks, but they do better. With the development of awareness, we understand that money, glory, power, and so on are not the only or even the main sources of enjoyment in life. We find that the state of complete immersion in what we do, whatever it may be, can be our source of satisfaction and joy. So we are slowly moving away from the external awards and giving priority to the internal ones. This, in turn, means that we are developing the ability to make the right choices for ourselves without taking into account the generally accepted trends.
The process may be slow, but if you start practicing awareness now, probably in 10 years, you will have a very different worldview and lifestyle than you have now. If you are already wondering how to develop it - a good start is the exercise recommended by Marshall Goldsmith in his book, "Whatever you've done, you will not succeed with it." Here is the exercise itself: close your eyes and try to count up to 20 without distracting yourself with other thoughts. Count down slowly (e.g. one number of each breath and exhale) and if that helps you, visualize the numbers. If your mind wakes - as it will surely be originally - and you are distracted by other thoughts, do not pursue them. Release your thoughts and go back to counting. If you still refer and forget about which number you have reached, start over and over until you can count to 20. Practice regularly by gradually increasing the number until you reach 100.
With the regular practice of this exercise (which, incidentally, can be done anywhere - sitting in the airplane or being in the shower and taking only 1-2 minutes), you will be able to develop complete awareness. But do not expect the exercise to be easy. It seems quite easy, but it is actually difficult in practice.
Scientists have already proven that practicing awareness can help us fight stress, improve our memory and increase our generosity. And all this will inevitably make us even happier. So it's good to look at awareness as a mental fitness instead of identifying it only with Buddhist monks or ninjas and try to shape our minds in a beautiful manner just as with regular gym workouts we shape our body.
 In December, the book will be released on the Bulgarian market