The Paradox Changing the World vs. Enjoying the Present

Changing the world (or at least your own world) is important. There are plenty of things wrong with the way things are.

The economy sucks, corruption seems rampant. We’re inching ever closer to a health care crisis as 74.1% of adults are overweight or obese (in the U.S.). We also live in the wealthiest society in the world and yet have some of the relative highest poverty rates among industrialized nations.

The list goes on.

And that’s just on the macro scale. On a personal level, most of us have things we’d like to improve too. We want to get in better shape, build financial independence, take more time off and improve our relationships. We want to learn more and achieve more and earn more recognition.

It’s easy to become consumed with thoughts of the future. “When I finish this project things will be great.” “It’ll just take two years to build this business, and then I can do all that stuff I really want to do.” When you arrive you’ll be happy, goes the thinking.

There’s one major problem with that frame of mind. When you arrive, you won’t actually be any happier. This is known as the “arrival fallacy.” As Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project explains, “…by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs.”

I’m no expert on happiness, but luckily there are people like Gretchen who dedicate their careers to studying what makes us happy. To me, in the end, life is really about enjoying your life and helping other people enjoy theirs. Happiness (or enjoyment maximization) should then be our goal. Those other things we focus on (health, work, travel) should exist because they help us or other people become happier (making other people happy can be a great way to make yourself happy).

Experts tell us that happiness is something we have to be personally responsible for in the present. Happiness isn’t something we arrive at. It’s something we have to be in the moment and recognize in our daily lives. We have to work at enjoying the present.

Enjoying the present is an important part of happiness, but it can fall short without the positive change that setting and achieving goals brings.

Working to change the world or our personal situations can lead to even greater happiness, but not if our only reason for pursuing the goal is the future anticipated happiness.

Are you sensing a paradox here? How can you be truly happy if happiness requires enjoying the present, but changing the world involves focusing on the future?

Maybe you’ve struggled with this as I have. The all-consuming nature of working towards big positive changes often comes at the expense of enjoying the present. It’s almost as if unplugging from goals temporarily is the only way to really focus on the present moment.

I’ve learned a lot about my personal happiness as I’ve transitioned from working stiff to “traditional” entrepreneur to lifestyle entrepreneur over the years. Having the freedom I have now to work on what I choose (and when and where I choose) has made an incredible difference in how I feel every day.

But I can still get stuck in the “I’ll be really happy when…” mentality. I have to work to recognize that I’m letting an extreme focus on the future limit my current happiness. I have to remind myself to enjoy the present.

Unplugging from goals temporarily can be a great way to enjoy the present. I’m a big fan of the occasional digital sabbatical or analog weekend. But this is a temporary fix, a resetting of perspective.

There’s a better approach than vacillating between future focus and present focus, looking for happiness in the moments between trying to change the world.

If you’re interested in being as happy as you personally possibly can, there are two things you must do:

  1. Do something you love for a living.

  2. Learn to love the journey instead of merely anticipating the destination.

Like I said, even when you do something you love for a living, it’s still easy to get pulled back into the future anticipation mode. You have to consciously work to appreciate and then enjoy all (or at least most) of the day-to-day tasks and work you do. You also have to avoid the danger of only deriving happiness from one aspect of your life.

At least that’s my strategy. And it’s a work in progress. What’s yours?

How do you change the world but enjoy the present at the same time?

I’d love to hear your strategies in the comments.

photo by ben matthews :::

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: