Friday, January 18, 2013

Waiting for Life to Start: "As Soon As I . . ."

As soon as I finish this degree, I'll be more fulfilled and I'll start my career.

As soon as I lose ten pounds, I'll be happier and I'll buy new clothes.

As soon as I get this new job, I'll be secure and start saving some money.

As soon as I move, I'll be more satisfied and I'll decorate.

As soon as my child is potty trained, life will be calmer and I can pick up my hobbies again.

It's great that we're goal-oriented creatures. Making goals and working towards them has given us some fairly amazing things as a species, like indoor plumbing, iPods, and beaming the Mona Lisa to the moon (no, for real).

Roomba in the office area
And Roomba, we can't forget Roomba
But all of that focus on future goals can be a problem, especially when it comes to our individual lives instead of the advancements of a larger professional community. It's called impact bias, and Dan Gilbert talks about it quite a bit in his very interesting TED Talk on happiness (if you've got some time, it's really worth the 20 minutes to watch the whole thing). 

Gilbert explains that happiness is something that we synthesize, and we're actually quite good at it, but we're really bad at understanding the control we have over it. Instead, our brains trick us into thinking that happiness is a thing we can find rather than a thing we can create. Impact bias is one way that our brains mess with us: 
From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study -- this almost floors me -- a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
Impact bias, then, is assuming that a certain thing is going to have a greater impact on our lives than it actually will.

I am so very guilty of this. I am a fairly goal-oriented person, and I always seem to think that completing the current big project (or, more often, big projects) will magically send spirals of sunshine and rainbows into every facet of my life. I've done this with school ("As soon as I finish my Master's, I'll finally be doing what I want to do with my life.") I've done it with parenting ("As soon as she starts sleeping through the night, things will be easy.") I've done it with housing ("As soon as we buy a house, I'll feel like a real grown up.") I've done it with my own body ("As soon as I lose two sizes, I'll buy new clothes because that'll be a size I'll be happy with.")

That last one demonstrates one of the real risks of impact bias. If we're constantly waiting for some big thing (that may or may not happen) before we can do some other thing (that probably needs to happen), we're missing a lot of opportunities.

If I wait until I drop two sizes to shop for clothes, then I don't have clothes. And if I don't have clothes that I like to wear to work and when I go out, I'm less likely to feel comfortable doing those things, which is going to--in turn--make me less happy. A self-fulfilling prophesy.

As Lesley from xoJane does a great job of explaining, changing your body size isn't going to change who you are:
If you were comfortable and confident with yourself, irrespective of your body size, in the before, you will probably continue to feel that in the after.
But if you are unhappy and unconfident with the person you are when you begin your weight loss, that weight loss will not fix these things. It won’t renovate your whole life. You will probably continue to feel that way no matter what size you’re wearing.
This isn't just true of weight loss. Sure, getting that degree might be a requirement for whatever particular career you're going into, but that piece of paper is not going to fundamentally change who you are. The actual education very well may (and probably should) change you as a person, but you get those benefits from going to the class, reading the assignments, talking to your classmates, etc. In other words, it's the day-to-day drudge that transforms you, not the magical moment of passing the finish line.

Even with something that does seem to have a big, immediate, life-changing impact isn't always going to make as big of a difference as we think it is. Sure, getting a big promotion at work or getting a new job dramatically transforms your life from one day to the next. This is especially true if said promotion/job takes you from a state of poverty to a state of financial stability. That's a radical change. It has the opportunity to transform your life. But when it all shakes out, we often still end up struggling to put that extra money in savings, or we end up racking up new bills. The habits that we cultivated before the change tend to follow us into the after. (And, as I've talked about before, the myth of money buying happiness is a particularly hard one to shake).

We have to make goals. They're important to make sure that we grow and reach our potential and do the things that we want to do with our lives, but we also have to make sure that we're not using our goals as an excuse to not reach the potential that we have right now. Get the clothes that make you feel good now. Start saving the money that you can. Even if you're in the depths of sleep deprivation from raising an infant (and I feel you), find some time for your hobbies.

There are very few magical moments in creating (or destroying) a good life. Most of the time it's the little things that count. Grab them. That's how you create your own happiness.

Photo: melissajones

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