The “live in the moment” philosophy is nothing new, with Eckhart Tolle first bringing it to our attention in his best-selling book, The Power of Now. But talk of finding the perfect life is rife among young women like me – and probably you – who have read all the books that tell us it doesn’t exist. That’s because knowing something conceptually or intellectually is very different from embodying that knowledge.
Hands up who still secretly thinks true contentment will come once we’ve reached our goal, landed the dream job, or met Mr Right? Even those who think they are happy like to fantasise about a brighter future.
There is a dichotomy between what keeps me awake at night. If I’m not up late reading about how to stay in the moment and live the best life, then I’m worrying about the future or making mental lists of what I should have achieved by the time I’m thirty or the bell strikes midnight on December 31st.
Many of us dream about writing the novel, meeting the man, having the perfect wedding, finishing the course, landing the high-flying job, having beautiful babies. Part of us believes after we tick all these boxes, we’ll be content. Looking back though, when I’ve had a nice job, there was a voice in my head saying I should or could be doing better.
I was constantly window-shopping for a better life. You can possibly have it all, but not all at once and I think lots of us believe happiness comes when we have it all concurrently.
Why are we all so restless? Everything from our upbringing to our chosen career plays a part. We are taught to focus on future. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up from the time they can talk. At school, we are told to work hard to pass exams, go to university, get a good job, and we are rewarded for these achievements.
As adults, performance based bonuses teach us to aspire to climbing the career ladder then we add house and car to spur us on without stopping to think about what actually fulfills us. All this gradual indoctrination places our focus firmly on the future, so it’s no wonder we believe the good life will happen “one day” rather than “right now”.
There’s no denying having goals keeps us moving forward, but being a “future-tripper” also causes worry. The problem with focussing too much on a brighter future is that it prevents you from appreciating the sun now. It’s what Freud called delayed gratification, and although to some extent it’s necessary, it’s also insidious.
Achieving your wants won’t make you happy, as your brain is already hatching the next dream without taking a moment to enjoy the success. The constant adrenaline rush associated with future tripping can lead to exhaustion, reliance on stimulants and even heart problems. We all know people who have great careers, are ticking all our dream boxes, yet survive on coffee or energy drinks by day and wine by night.
I think a reason we are often so discontent is that we consider normal is based on what we see around us. Online we are only shown the best, most popular, most liked images. This makes the great seem average and dilapidates self-esteem. Even when we get to a bucket-list destination, it can feel hollow.
We are told constantly that a life without travel is worthless. If you don’t travel you’re not really living. Travel is wonderful but there are millions of people in the world who don’t travel out of their own villages yet live beautiful, worthy lives. In fact, travel can bring mild disappointment. Studies show that unhappiness is caused by expectation exceeding reality. All of the movie scenes with backing music and retouched and filtered Instagram images don’t reflect the honest truth of a destination. We are happiest when we stumble across something we don’t have preconceived ideas of.
I was once picnicking with my friend L, in a London park on a stunning summers day when eight deer and stags appeared from nowhere. It was more moving and cinematic and spectacular than when we got to our dream Maldivian beach. We were more truly moved. I think this was because it was the unexpected beauty of nature.
Another of the happiest experiences of my life was finding a hot water lake called Kerosene Creek in Rotorua, New Zealand, and sitting under the steaming hot waterfalls with my auntie and cousin, under a full moon, to a hypnotic soundtrack of owls and other wildlife. It was beyond magical, but I doubt it would have had such a profound effect on me had I planned it.
When we make our travel goals, we should also remember to just explore what’s around us without pre-judgements of what we’ll find. I’m not saying that our dream destinations never live up to our expectations, because they do. When I found myself in stunning, intoxicating lavender fields on the most gorgeous summers day, it was everything I’d ever hoped for and more. Now If I smell lavender I am instantly transported back to that extraordinary moment, but in hindsight I spent far too long taking photographs to show other people rather than just be present in my dream place.
A few days later we unexpectedly found a lake with hundreds of beautiful black swans, complete with bills the colour of Mac Lady Danger lipstick, swimming within it and although entranced by their majesty, I was irritated that I was wearing the maddest clothing combination of swimwear and pyjamas and my hair was crazy (I wasn’t planning on leaving the car) so I couldn’t get the “perfect” photo of me with the swans. I don’t think I would have so entranced by the black swans had I sought them out – the beauty was as much about the novelty and unexpectedness as the birds.
Likewise, when I found myself in a Kiwi campsite under the most magnificent display of stars (shooting and all) I found myself getting frustrated that the camera wasn’t picking up the glory of what looked like a party in heaven had culminated in millions of angels throwing buckets of led-glitter confetti down to earth. Then I stopped myself and just enjoyed the experience. This is my life and the only photos I truly need are the ones in my memory.
We all need to learn to take in the moments for what they are, instead of having goals to visit places we wouldn’t go were we not allowed to Instagram the proof we’d been. Instead go where you’d go if you couldn’t tell anyone you’d been.
Our celebrity-obsessed culture certainly doesn’t help our contentment levels. Most teenagers want to be famous because they are bombarded with reality-TV shows in which dreams of ordinary people are instantly fulfilled. They subconsciously wait to be plucked from obscurity, be ‘discovered’, or swept off their feet by an expert who’ll wave a magic wand to transform their life. Even if that did happen, the goal-posts would alter and contentment would remain elusive. What we all need is a change of perspective, not circumstances.
I’m a fan of the saying, ‘Success is getting what you want but happiness is wanting what you get’. Gratitude and sense of appreciation are keys to contentment. This relentless goal-setting is exhausting. It’s a way of deferring happiness, approval and self-respect, and zaps joy from life. It’s crucial that we learn to love ourselves whilst striving for the goal rather than delaying self-love until the goal is reached.
I’m not rendering goals obsolete, but I have a new way of processing them that’s working well for me and I know it can help you too.
First step is to spring clean your goals. Do you actually still want the goal? We evolve and sometimes our goals are redundant without us noticing. Many of us have goals we didn’t even desire in the first place. It’s an epidemic that we have bought into other people’s desires for success. We have been seduced into a way of life that conspires against our basic level contentment. We are keeping up with the Jones’ when the Jones’ don’t feel successful themselves.
If we do still want the goal, step one is to write it down, followed by why. Success has a feeling attached.
If you don’t own your core desired feelings, you’ll be swimming upstream. I was introduced to the “core desired feeling” philosophy by Danielle LaPorte’s brilliant book, “The Desire Map; A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul”.
Once you know your core desired feelings, ask “What can you do today, to give you that feeling?” If you want more love, be more loving. If you want to help, love, because all love becomes help.
Write down things you can do to give the feeling you are craving right now, rather than waiting for the feeling to arrive in conjunction with the goal being met.
Next write down what’s stopping you? What’s the story you tell yourself? Then counter that by writing down why that’s nonsense and what you will do to eliminate the excuse. For example, one of the smaller goals I have is to learn a language. It’s been on my new year’s resolution list for about a decade. My excuses are that I don’t have enough time and it’s too difficult. Next to this I write that ‘I can make time. Watch less makeup tutorials on YouTube a few times a week’ and ‘learning a language isn’t rocket science. Every French person can speak French, there are no Germans stuck in bed because speech is just too difficult to master’. Keep it light-hearted but truthful, so that you aren’t putting yourself down. Don’t write ‘you’re unemployed, of course you have time!’.
The penultimate task, since seeing the path to the goal is essential, is to brainstorm the steps to make it happen. Write down at least twenty steps you can take to reach the goal. These things don’t have to be perfect they just have to be possible. For example, if you want to save money you could say ‘I could get a lodger’ or ‘I could sell my unwanted items on eBay’ even if these things aren’t your ideal. Creative gold comes near the end so write as many things as possible!
Through the brainstorm, I started designing for behaviours that lead to the outcome, not the outcome. Find triggers to create tiny sustainable habits. Get dressed in exercise gear increases likelihood of actually exercising. When the trigger creates the behaviour you get a dopamine hit because you’ve done the thing you set out to do. Our cells are “Hungry Hippos”, junkies who crave what you keep giving, whether it’s cortisol or dopamine or serotonin.
My primary goal was writing a novel. I know that motivation isn’t enough, its habits I need. The habits created the book, not my motivation. My trigger was food; after I had eaten breakfast or lunch, I will write something. This only worked because the it’s a micro-change. I didn’t have to write a lot, but the fact it was so easy, meant I usually did write a considerable amount, but on the days when I wrote two lines, I had no guilt whatsoever, because I hadn’t failed. I was to write, not write well or write significant amounts.
Lastly, I wrote specific improvement goals, using numbers with dates attached. Lose 2kg by June is much better than lose weight. Save $1000 by Christmas is much better than save money.
My dated goals were to finish the chapter by the end of the month for example. Tony Robbins often says that it’s not success that makes us happy, it’s progress and this idea totally resonates with me. Everest’s are everywhere, so you can find a way to see progress daily – whether it’s by writing the email, making the phone call or doing some research. Make sure you do something to progress today.
Once you’ve written out the goal, the why, the excuse, the comeback to the excuse, the steps to make it happen you will have a different relationship with the goal. After contemplating my own results, I’m not surprised that studies show we are 42 per cent more likely to complete a task if we write it down. So even though it seems like a boring task, it really is worth doing.
Stepping out of the “grass-is-greener” mind-set is easier said than done, but it is possible. Now, when I worry that I should be further ahead, that I’m not flourishing, I remind by self that sooner isn’t always better. On a road-trip a detour is a good thing, so why not in life, too? I remember there’s a lot to be said for slow-cooked success. There are no hacks – hackers are highly skilled obsessives who’ve worked for decades to break into the Pentagon.
To the contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, most people need a long time to realise their potential. We’ve heard too many unicorn stories and now feel plain because we’re not a unicorn, instead of realising all these stories are otherworldly!
With advancements in healthcare most people live into their eighties in good health meaning we have an average productive lifespan of 60 years (20-80) so there’s plenty of time to realise our dreams.
Whenever I feel like I could be doing better, I remind myself that so could they. If the perfect job or person is out there, am I really the ideal candidate for the role or deserving of the Mr. Perfect’s Wife title?
When you start future tripping, remember there are only so many tomorrows. The human lifespan is less than 1000 months, so this year, If you can’t stay in the moment, make it your new micro-goal to at least stay in the month!