The belief that happiness exists in a future moment often rests on two key expectations: the end of an unwanted situation or the emergence of a desired one. We often believe happiness is just around the corner, waiting for either a problem to disappear or a dream to come true. But why do we think this way? What's common between the relief of a problem being solved and the joy of a wish fulfilled? It's the expected emotion, the feeling we're longing to experience.
In an attempt to recreate these desired feelings, we find ourselves in a never-ending pursuit of events, either to fix problems or to bring about something we desire. Whereas deep down, it's not the actual events we're after, but the feelings we think they will bring. By doing this, we unintentionally push the desired happiness we seek into the future. This habit has two major drawbacks. Firstly, we don't realize that the emotion we seek can be dissociated from the accompanying event - so we can actually feel the emotion we're seeking before the event even happens. Thus missing the chance to experience the desired joy in the present. Secondly, we forget that this desired event along with the emotion it brings is temporary, and we - as we often have repeatedly done in the past once the moment passes - will soon be on the hunt for the next fleeting source of the emotion. Overlooking the possibility of lasting happiness.
Imagine you're preparing for an important exam. You feel anxious about passing and excited about the benefits of certification. You believe that passing the exam will bring you happiness, changing many aspects of your life. The anxiety will vanish, and you'll be overwhelmed with joy. This belief turns your joy and relief into future events, hinging them on your success. When you do pass, you indeed feel a burst of happiness and relief. But soon, this joy, once linked to passing the exam, shifts to another future event, like getting a job. Similarly, the anxiety you felt about the exam morphs into worry about job hunting. This pattern is common, whether it's about getting rid of a negative feeling or gaining a positive one. We replace the anticipation for one event with another, along with their associated emotions. Once you land the job, the cycle repeats, with your anticipation moving to yet another future event. It's the same pattern over and over: different events, but the same process of postponing the emotions we seek or want to avoid, delaying the emotions we truly seek to a future that never seems to arrive.
The fact that various events can evoke the same emotions suggests that we can create events in the present that bring about the same desired feelings. However we often miss this insight and end up projecting our happiness to future events, overlooking the immediate opportunity to generate the emotions we associate with happiness, here and now. The belief that you will be happy when you have solved a specific problem or attained a particular objective is a great illusion. Life is continuously solving problems.
"...you can never truly become happy, you can only be happy..." - Sam Harris
Why do we persist in believing that fulfillment lies in the future, even though we've all experienced the fleeting nature of joy from our past achievements? Even though we've all set and reached goals, only to find that the happiness they bring quickly fades, as we swiftly shift our expectation to find it in attainment of our next goal? The real journey can't be about endlessly chasing desired feelings in future events. It can't be to continuously search and expect to find the feelings we desire there, then, but rather, to create and experience them here, now (through such practices as gratitude journaling, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises etc.). Building on the understanding that it's not so much the events themselves we desire to experience, but the emotions they evoke within us. And that these emotions are accessible to us right now.