Updated: Mar 5, 2020
We've all been guilty of it: putting our happiness on hold until some big event in the future that we are so excited about finally occurs. Only then we will allow ourselves to enjoy and be happy.
There's a huge problem with this kind of thinking though.
At some point in life, we all have thought the thought "When I get xyz then I'll be happy".
"When the weekend comes, I will finally get to do what I want and be happy."
"When I get the job, I will be making money doing the things I've studied for and finally be happy."
"When I lose weight, I will feel so much more confident and finally be happy."
"When I graduate, I will finally be free to do what I want with my life, which will make me so happy."
"When I get home from work though this horrific traffic, I will finally get to relax and be happy."
You get the idea, of basically surviving though the difficult journey to some magic destination so that you can finally be happy.
While there's nothing wrong at all with setting goals and being excited about reaching them, there are some quite big problems with postponing our happiness until after we have reached our goals.
Problem 1: You are not enjoying the process.
...which is often longer than the actual event of accomplishing your goal. This leaves you overall more miserable than happy in the entire process of achieving the goal.
Think of how long time you spend working towards achieving the goal, anticipating how happy you will be when you reach it and thinking that you don't deserve the happiness just yet - not before you've achieved it?
If we look at the timeline of setting a goal, the process of working towards it and the time it takes to actually achieve it, what is the largest part of your goal, timewise?
For example, your goal is to run a half-marathon in six months. Not only do you want to finish the race, but also get a time under two hours, which would be your personal best.
You make a plan of how you will achieve your goal and start training really hard in order to get in shape. In the beginning, you are excited about your goal and to carry out your plan, but several weeks in, you start noticing that you are treating it as a chore.
Getting outside in all kinds of weather conditions and running long distances and intervals just as you had planned becomes a routine and all of a sudden it's not excited anymore.
You miss out on meeting friends, because you HAVE TO go for a run. You don't eat foods that excite you, because you HAVE TO get in shape for the race.
You tell yourself that after the race, you will be able to hang out with your friends much more and eat whatever you like. And just like that, you have postponed being happy until after the race.
If you look at the timeline, that gives you approximately six months of not enjoying your goal, and only about two hours of the actual event and hopefully the rest of the day of feeling accomplished and happy about it.
Problem 2: you anticipate the happiness you will feel once you've achieved the goal so much, that once it happens, you end up disappointed.
Let's say you've endured though your strict training program and nutrition and it's finally race day.
You are excited about the race, but mostly about the fact that you will soon be free from the strict training program and be able to enjoy things you really like doing.
After less than two hours from the start, you finally are at the finish line and have achieved your set goal and you feel overjoyed. The amount of endorphins running through your body certainly adds to it.
You keep that feeling within you for a couple of hours, or even for the rest of the day if you decide to celebrate your accomplishment with great food, a good glass of wine and lovely company.
While, sure, the happiness you feel is very strong once you've accomplished something this big, that feeling doesn't last forever. Your happiness goes away just as suddenly and soon as it came. That feeling of "It's over. Now what??"is all too familiar for most of us.
In fact it's so common, that it even has a name - the happiness hangover (1).
It occurs because we anticipate happiness so big, that when it finally happens and passes, we are left with this empty feeling inside. We feel overwhelmed just by the thought of ever trying to achieve it again, now having such high intensity reference feeling to the word "happiness".
Lost of big events in life that involve anticipation often lead to the happiness hangover. They include weddings, graduations, holidays, having a baby, vacation, and even weekends.
How to deal with the happiness hangover?
During the process of achieving your big goal, remember to be grateful for the things that you already have and allow yourself to feel the appreciation and happiness towards them (2).
Keep a gratitude journal, writing down several things that you are grateful for every day, or think of three things that you are grateful for when you wake up in the morning.
Doing this will help you to be happy throughout the process and get you more used to the feeling of happiness throughout the process, making you less prone to the happiness hangover afterwards.
Gratitude also works great once you are already experiencing the happiness hangover, as it reminds you of all the things you can appreciate in your life, that you may otherwise have forgotten, having fully focused on the big goal for a while.
Relive and reminisce!
You may think that this might just be the opposite of the mindfulness advice I had been giving you in this blog. After all, mindfulness is much more about being in the present moment than attempting mental time travel.
But the fact is that reminiscing about the past event is actually proven to make people a little bit more happy (3), so I definitely advise you to do that too.
This is a great way to use our minds' ability to travel in time and remember the past events.
Since this blog is mainly about mindfulness, you can even make reminiscing into a mindful, meditative activity! Here's how:
Sit down in a comfortable position and observe your breath for a little while, until you have fully come to the present moment and tuned in to your breath.
Now remember the event that made you happy but is now over, such as the half-marathon.
Remember your hard training and how it felt to run at the race. Remember how the air felt on your skin as you were running. Remember any sounds and people that were there, either on the track or in the public. Remember how it felt reaching your goal - the people cheering, getting a medal and a goodie bag.
Try to involve as many feelings and sensations as possible into your memory and relive them all.
Once you've done it, feel the gratitude for having achieved your goal and the amazing emotions you've received from it.
Anticipate the feeling of having already achieved your goal before you achieve it!
Count your chickens before they're hatched. Or, well, to some extent.
Visualize how it will feel when you reach your goal while you are still in the process. Just as with reminiscing, you can also make this mind time travel into a mindful activity.
Imagine and visualize how you will feel when you reach the goal. Who will be there around you? What will you be wearing? Will you be holding anything? Will you be saying anything? Will someone else be saying anything? What sounds, like music, the wind, traffic, or any others, will there be around you?
Try to involve as many feelings as possible into the visualization and get excited and happy about the future results even before they've occured.
Studies have proven that getting excited about reaching your goal in this way increases your happiness (4). Many successful people practice this method, that's also highly proclaimed by Napoleon Hill, the author of "Think and Grow Rich".
And lastly, CELEBRATE!
Celebrate not only your great achievements, but also achieving the smaller steps along the way.
Reward yourself with something you like (5), whether it's a chill evening on the couch, a dinner with a friend, a relaxing bubble bath, a trip, a glass of champagne, or anything else small or big, that can increase your happiness by just a little bit!
Most importantly, however, acknowledge your mini-success along the way and feel grateful and happy that you are where you are - on the way towards achieving something great.
As the process of working towards achieving the goal is often longer than the actual event of achieving the goal, it's extremely important for us to not postpone our happiness until the goal is achieved. By not allowing ourselves to be happy before the goal is reached, not only are we more miserable than happy throughout the process, but we also risk getting the happiness hangover.
By being grateful of the things we have throughout the process and after having achieved our goal, anticipating the feeling of having achieved the goal before we actually do it, reliving and reminiscing the event once it occured and celebrating the small steps we take towards achieving the goal as well as having reached the goal, we can prevent the happiness hangover and ensure to enjoy the process, not only the end-goal.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog, by subscribing to my mailing list below.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Certified Mindfulness Life Coach
1. Lombardo, E. (2018). Are You Experiencing a Happiness Hangover? Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-perfect/201812/are-you-experiencing-happiness-hangover
2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
3. Bryant, F.B., Smart, C.M. & King, S.P. Using the Past to Enhance the Present: Boosting Happiness Through Positive Reminiscence. J Happiness Stud 6, 227–260 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-005-3889-4
4. Quoidbach, Jordi & Wood, Alex & Hansenne, Michel. (2009). Back to the future: The effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4. 349-355. 10.1080/17439760902992365.
5. Goodman, Joseph K. and Malkoc, Selin A. and Stephenson, Brittney, Celebrate or Commemorate? A Material Purchase Advantage When Honoring Special Life Events (January 1, 2016). Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Volume 1, Number 4, October 2016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3163861