Why Tying Your Happiness To Future Events & Goals Will Leave You Unfulfilled + How Mindfulness Can Help You
When I Reach My Goal, Then I’ll Be Happy... Won’t I?
This statement reflects an attitude that governs many people’s lives. We often focus our attention as well as our hopes on promises of happiness or the big events in our lives. As a result, we tend to lose sight of the subtle, chronic stress this attitude causes.
We allow our lives to be dominated — more or less unconsciously — by a “when-then” attitude:
“When the children have left home, then I’ll take more time for myself” or “When I’ve finished this project, then things will quiet down.” We try to convince ourselves that we will be happier once we have a new car or a new partner, or once we have taken that beach vacation. This attitude is fostered and reinforced by modern society, which supports the notion that contentment lies in status symbols, an attractive physical appearance, success, and wealth — and that these things are more important than serenity, relaxation, our quality of life, and ethics.
Australian writer and philosopher Father Alfred D’Souza puts it concisely:
“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time to still be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”14
The when-then attitude is a stress trigger that fosters the expectation that we can achieve something that might never happen. Living in the future causes us to miss the present.
If we are caught up in a stressful life situation and don’t think we can change it, we often think we have no alternative but to accept it. Or we become so accustomed to the stress that we believe we need it to function.
Often we end up merely reacting to circumstances instead of taking charge of our lives.
All of these situations can lead to living for the weekend or a dream vacation — hoping for some kind of relief. Then, when the vacation or weekend is over, the relaxation we may have experienced soon dissipates. In fact, an irony of modern life is that the leisure we long for does not help us truly relax but instead becomes another source of stress.
Since “doing nothing” is seldom considered a worthwhile objective in our society, many people pack as many “leisure activities” as possible into their “relaxing” weekend.
Sometimes we harbor the unexpressed attitude that “the more I do to relax, the more stress-free I will be.” By the start of each workweek, we may find that activities such as watching television, going to the movies, dining out, engaging in competitive sports, or going to theme parks or parties have not resulted in true relaxation.
We may have been distracted from our concerns, but we have not really coped with stress in a helpful way, by winding down.
In fact, we have substituted one sort of stressful activity for another, which may be a distraction from our more accustomed activities but is still an activity that keeps us very much in “doing mode.” However, please don’t misunderstand us: we are not saying that no one should engage in leisure activities such as those mentioned above, only that it all depends on how we approach them.
Recovering from Stress
Studies on the dynamics of physical stress and relaxation have shown that every stress and exertion phase must be followed by a rest and relaxation phase in order to avoid damage to our health. At the same time, the length of the rest phase depends on the type of stress and its duration.
The longer a stress phase lasts, the longer it takes for us to recover and be ready to enter the next stress period with the requisite motivation and ability.
Yet most people ’s daily lives do not allow for this. Either they don’t rest at all, or they don’t rest enough to provide the necessary amount of relaxation and regeneration before a new phase of activity.
It is important to choose recreational activities that are truly relaxing. Most helpful is a regeneration activity that leads to our feeling better and helps us unwind mentally. Often this is not what happens even when we lie down to rest.
Our bodies may be prostrate, but our minds are still busy with plans, worries, or daydreams, and we are far from truly relaxing. The slowing down of mental activity is an essential element for effective recovery, and that is exactly what we practice in mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is also about developing a nonjudgmental approach to observing our thoughts and feelings.
In doing so, we can avoid getting lost in the litanies of thoughts that are often a major cause of stress and discomfort.
The following exercise may help you understand what we mean by observing our thoughts as thoughts. When this exercise is finished, take a moment to notice what struck you as particularly interesting or new, and what you experienced as you observed your thoughts. Don’t worry if you were not able to observe your thoughts at all times. That is normal. Just try repeating the exercise another time. Becoming aware of thoughts in a less stressful way takes quite a bit of practice.
Exercise: Observing Our Thoughts
• First, adopt a comfortable, relaxed, and upright posture while sitting on a chair, sofa, bed, meditation cushion, or bench.
Be aware of your posture and the sensations, if any, that are present in the body. Perhaps you sense the parts of your body that are in direct contact with the surface you are sitting on. Then, without changing your position, allow yourself to become aware of your body as a whole. Take some time to notice any sensations that may be present, or simply notice the whole body as it is. Spend about two minutes doing this.
• Now, tune in to the breath and become aware of the fact that your body is breathing.
While doing this, you don’t need to change anything. For example, there is no need to try to control your breath, to make it deeper or change it in any other way. Give yourself a few moments just to sense your breathing as best you can: inhaling... exhaling... one breath following the other.
If you have trouble simply sensing the breath and tend to try to control your breathing, then be gently aware of this. Just sit and continue to practice mindfulness of your breathing for about two minutes.
Still seated and breathing naturally, begin noticing the thoughts that arise. If you find this difficult, imagine you are sitting in a movie theater watching an empty screen and waiting for your thoughts to be projected onto it.
When these thoughts appear, simply observe them, and then notice what happens if you don’t intervene.
Some thoughts will disappear as soon as you become aware of them. Others will remain or recur. Just continue to be aware of them as simply thoughts or “mind events,” and watch as they appear on the screen and then disappear, without trying to influence them or get involved in their content.
If the suggestion of sitting in a movie theater is not helpful, feel free to choose a different image — for instance, observing clouds drifting by in the sky as your thoughts. Or you might want to picture yourself sitting by a river and watching your thoughts float past as if they are boats.
• When you feel ready, bring the exercise to a close by re- turning your attention to your body while sitting. You may feel like stretching or taking a few deep breaths.
• In observing thoughts, we take a step backward and simply observe them without getting tangled up in them. When you experience this even for a few seconds, you have interrupted the tendency to go on automatic pilot and are deepening your mindfulness practice.
To summarize, the exercise consists of three steps:
1. Adopt a comfortable seated position and become aware of your body.
2. Turn your attention to your breath and be aware of the sensations of breathing.
3. Observe the flow of thoughts without letting yourself be drawn into them.
Reference: 14. “365 Days of Happiness,” Daily Good, undated, www.dailygood.org/2010
About the authors
Dr. Linda Lehrhaupt, born in 1949, is the founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness-Based Approaches and Stress Reduction in Bedburg, near Cologne. She trained under Jon Kabat-Zinn at his Stress Reduction Clinic in America.
Read more on www.institut-fuer-achtsamkeit.de.
Petra Meibert, born in 1959, is a qualified psychologist and naturopath. The assistant director of the Institute for Mindfulness-Based Approaches, she received her training from Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli.
Read more on www.j-p-meibert.de.