Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Many of us live in a perpetual state of anticipation; it’s often the looking forward that gets us through the day to day. Not necessarily because the here and now is unbearable, but as we get older, we slide slowly and inadvertently into routine and habit, which are great for practical things like eating, sleeping and school runs, but are frankly terrible for keeping life exciting. Children are much better at living in the present, because they haven’t lived long enough to want or need to wish it away. Yes, they’ll look forward to holidays and Christmas and desserts (who doesn’t), but they won’t worry about not going to the gym, getting the boiler serviced, that imminent work appraisal, batch cooking, a pension, or anything further away than next week. (If you ever do meet a seven year old with concerns about their retirement plans, please refer them to the nearest child psychologist).
For years I thought I was unique in my tendency to use the future to get me through the present, but the more I speak to other adults, the more I realise I’m not alone. We need light at the end of the tunnel to get us through darker times, but sometimes we also need a glimmer at the end of the week just to get us through the mundanity of life, or even the thought at 11am of a glass of wine at 6pm to get us through the rest of a dull Tuesday.
“I just need to get through this week”.
“I’ve booked a holiday for August and I’m counting the days”.
“I’ll be happier in six months when I’m a stone lighter”.
But no sooner than we reach what was getting us through the banalities or stresses of real life, then we need something else to take its place. And more often than not, the thing we were looking forward to, wasn’t actually as great or transformative as we had hoped. But does that matter when it got you through a week of vomiting bugs or just a dull seven days at the office? We all have a baseline, resting level of happiness that we will inevitably come back to, regardless of what happens in between, and it’s that baseline that sometimes needs to be reset.
As we get older, we naturally settle into comfort zones, and comfort zones are a vacuum for excitement; they simply can’t occupy the same space. Nobody wants excitement all of the time – that would be exhausting, and frankly no one has enough energy or paracetamol. But we still need a bit of it, and the more we do and the longer we live, the less it happens naturally. The rush of squandering pocket money saved for several weeks, the elation of school crushes and plans for summer, the buzz of a pay cheque, or buying cushions for your first flat. As we settle into the lives we thought we wanted, the excitement wanes. And our ambitions change; the things that you thought would make your life complete twenty years ago don’t tend to remain the same – if they did, we’d all be content for life with a working fridge, a basic salary and a really cool coat.
Of course there are those who remain effortlessly enthusiastic about the present; the mindful, the motivating and the fanatical; but between you and me, they’re not usually the ones I want to go for a drink with. Give me the cynics and the sarcastic any day.
So how do we change our baseline happiness? Ironically, it’s often not by doing more, but in doing less. Many of us feel we should be doing more exercise, more learning, more socialising, more working, more reading and more of all the things we think will make us happier. But it’s generally doing less of the things we think we should be doing, and more of the things that actually make us happy, that results in enjoying the present more. Love walking and hate the gym? Keep walking. Hate watching the news? Sign up to Netflix. No interest in becoming a vegan? Don’t. Think Dry January is the worst idea since clothes for cats? Ignore it. Revise your hopes, do your own life review and tweak your ambitions accordingly.
“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.
Life would be terribly dull if hopes were finite; there would be nothing left to look forward to. I’m learning to appreciate the present more, but accepting that sometimes it’s ok to wish it away in favour of what’s to come. Now, about that glass of wine…
Originally published in Image Magazine, June 2018.