Have you ever had the feeling that you just had to have something? Maybe it was a piece of cake, a new smartphone, or even a new special someone?
You wanted it so badly, you couldn’t stop thinking about it. You dreamed about it, and thought, “If only I could have that, I would be so happy.”
And if you finally got it, you were deliriously happy.
For a while, at least. As time passed, your delight over this new possession waned, and you find yourself glancing at it, wondering if that was all to it.
And then, another new cake, smartphone, or beautiful new person catches your eye, and you found yourself thinking once again, “If only …”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve done this a lot. Enough to finally realise that it doesn’t work.
Introducing the Mad Contract of “If Only”
Imagine the heavens parting, and a cherubic angel descending from the sky. The angle hands you a golden contract, which promises perfect happiness … but only if certain conditions were met.
You squint at the glittering contract, and catch conditions like:
- You must become a multimillionaire
- You must have flawless skin
- You must have six-pack abs
- You must be a perfect parent
- You have to drive the biggest car
- Everyone must love and adore you
The angel hands you a pen made of solid gold. Just sign here, the cherub beams, and everlasting joy will be yours.
You’d be mad to sign it!
But how many of us have already signed a contract like this with ourselves? An unconscious contract, filled with impossible conditions for happiness, that runs through our head, making us miserable?
“If only I had that, then I would finally be happy.”
The Sane Solution to Happiness
How, then, can we actually be happy?
It turns out that one solution to the mad contract is simple: Practice an attitude of gratitude.
In a study conducted by Drs. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, three groups of people were asked to record their lives over ten weeks:
- The first group was asked to write five things they were grateful for in the previous week
- The second group was tasked to write five problems from the previous week
- The third group simply had to write about five things that had happened in the previous week
The researchers discovered that after ten weeks, the people in the first group felt 25% happier than when they started. They were more optimistic about the future, and even exercised more than those in the second and third group.
But gratitude isn’t about comparing your good fortune to others’ bad luck. In a follow-up study similar to the first one, Emmons and McCullough asked people to record how they were better off than others.
They found that those who practiced gratitude, without comparing themselves to others, were still much happier than the other groups.
From “If Only” to “Even If”
If it’s mad to believe that what you don’t have will make you happy, then being grateful about what you do have seems to be a saner way to be happy.
Instead of the madness of “if only,” gratitude flips that around to “even if.”
From, “If only I had that new watch, I would be so happy,” to, “Even if I don’t have that new watch, I can still be happy.”
From, “If only I had a new partner, I would be so happy,” to, “Even if I don’t have a new partner, I can still be happy.”
From, “If only I had that, I would be so happy,” to, “Even if I don’t have that now, I can still be happy in this moment.”
But What If I Lose My Motivation?
But if you become happy, without depending on getting or achieving things to make you happy, will you lose your motivation to get things done?
In other words, will you become a blissed out, lazy sloth?
Shawn Achor, who spent more than a decade researching and lecturing at Harvard University, debunks this belief in his book The Happiness Advantage. According to Achor, research shows that positivity fuels greater success.
When you’re happier in your everyday life, you’re more likely to be optimistic, to engage, to spot opportunities, and remain resilient through tough times. Instead of making you lose your motivation, happiness can actually increase it.
A key idea that Achor emphasises is that becoming happy is not a random occurrence, but a skill you practice. We don’t have to wait to be happy, we can be happy now, and if we find it difficult to do, then we can practice our happiness skills so it becomes easier.
The Treadmill of Misery
Some people can’t accept being happy without a reason. To them, it’s crazier to be happy without a reason, than it is to be miserable without one.
This is the madness of “if only.” It’s a madness that cuts a rift between us and happiness. To become happy later, “if only” subtly implies that we can’t be happy now.
So this treadmill of chasing after the next new thing not only doesn’t work to create lasting happiness in the long run, it makes us even more miserable in the present moment.
I know I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve caught myself glancing at that new watch, that new car, that new X, and thinking about how happy I would be if only I had that new thing. That “if only” moment happened so fast, I hardly had a chance to notice before I grabbed it, and started obsessing over the next thing that would finally make me happy.
The obsession could last a few moments, days, or weeks, but I realised it always had one common effect: It would make me miserable with what I already had, even though I’d once lusted after these things the same way, once before. Getting caught up in the madness of “if only” has a way of making gratitude and happiness rapidly recede into the background.
The more I noticed what “if only” was doing, the more I saw how subtle it could be. Wanting a new, expensive car is an easy way to catch “if only.” But one of my weaknesses is books; I love buying and reading them, and it got to the point where I’d buy books even though I didn’t have the time to read them.
Who could say that reading and learning new things was a bad thing? But “if only” was working me here too, making me think that “if only” I had this next book, I would be wiser, smarter, X-er, without appreciating the books I already had, and were still waiting for me to finish.
Will You Practice Happiness?
Seeing how “if only” works made me understand one thing.
Even if you become richer than Bill Gates, you can never get everything that you want. Even if you do, you will never have enough time to enjoy it all. And if, for some magical reason, you become immortal, your appetite for the next new thing will never be satisfied. Our richness and happiness are measured by more than the things we’ve acquired, and the achievements we’ve made.
The only way out is to cut the ropes binding our happiness to a condition outside of ourselves, and remember that when it comes to happiness, we can be at cause, instead of being at effect. To practice happiness, we have to give up the mad contract, and change from the madness of “if only,” to the sanity of “even if.”
Featured image from Pixabay, by Ryan McGuire. Licensed under CC0 1.0.