I don’t own a crystal ball, and I can’t read star charts. But I can tell you exactly how happy you will be 10 years from today.
What’s my superpower, then?
All I have to do is look at your life right now. If you are happy now, you’ll probably be happy in the future, too. If you’re miserable right now, you’re not likely to wake up one day bursting with joy.
Indeed, we all have what psychologists call a ‘happiness set point’ – a level of contentment that we come back to no matter what great or terrible things happen in our lives. Despite the immediate highs and lows, we might feel when we hit a particular milestone, the emotional aftermath essentially leaves us just as happy as we ever were.
Unfortunately, we’re completely deluded about how to find happiness in our lives. For example, the most pervasive belief held by many of my clients at the onset of our work is that they will be much happier once they start making more money.
They don’t have enough money now, they tell me, so they can’t enjoy their life. They need to take these stressful jobs so that they can climb the ladder and earn, earn, earn. But once they cross that six-figure mark (or any other arbitrary income goal), they’re convinced that they will be happier. Study after study, however, proves that more money doesn’t make people happier. Even lottery winners are ultimately no happier than non-lottery winners.
Similarly, paraplegics are usually just as content as people who can walk. Indeed, we all have a happiness set point, and it molded and cultivated not by our ability to attain a certain goal, but by how we choose to relate to our lives every day.
For those who’ve been following this blog, you know I talk a lot about how to overcome the mental obstacles holding you back from having a career that you love. Well, another one of the excuses I constantly hear from people is: “I don’t like this job right now, but this experience will prepare me for a job I like more in the future.”
There are three major problems with this statement. First, the future is never guaranteed. There are a million variables that are going to affect the way your life unfolds in the coming years: your company may move overseas, your mother might get sick, the economy may crash. You can’t guarantee that you will get this future job you’re holding out for. All you can control is the job you have right now.
Second, we’re incredibly bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. Psychologists refer to this is as ‘poor affective forecasting.’ The thing is, your needs and preferences change dramatically over time. Think back to ten years ago: did you care about all the same things you care about today? Probably not. Your priorities have changed. And they will continue to change. So how can you know what job will make you happy in the future? You can’t.
Lastly, that future job won’t suddenly propel you into a world of joy because you’ve got a happiness set point! In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert demonstrates how events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think, and things that fill us with dread consistently make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. Instead, we constantly reset back to our emotional baseline. Therefore, no job, no matter how wonderful, is going to instantaneously make you euphoric. If you’re miserable in your career right now, and you plan to just wait it out, then you’ll be miserable in the future, too.
However, positive neuroplasticity teaches us that you can gradually increase your happiness set point over time by consistently focusing on the present moment. You have to stop doing, thinking, wanting and planning for a better life when that miracle job comes along in the future, and instead, turn to bringing richness, peace, and the beauty into your work right now. Little by little. Maybe you start by creating a more beautiful workspace. Or have a chat with your boss about how the company can better use your skills and passions. Or bringing in gifts for your team to create a more collaborative working environment. Perhaps it means you need to look for a new job right now or start a project on the side. But the central point is this: don’t bank on your current disappointing job to lead you to a happy career down the line. The only way to guarantee a satisfying future is by taking control of your job and happiness right now.