Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stumbling on Happiness

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death

Life is what happens to you while you're busy
making other plans.
John Lennon


One of the most interesting books I've read in the last couple of months is Daniel Gilbert's
Stumbling on Happiness
Gilbert's premise is that we often make decisions in our present with the idea that these things will benefit us at some future time. We deny ourselves things and save our money thinking that our future selves will enjoy and appreciate these sacrifices, only to arrive in the future full of regret about our past decisions. How can this be? Gilbert makes the point that we are often very poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and that we often arrive in the future baffled by the decisions we made in the past.

So what is the lesson here? I took this lesson as a kind of "Carpe diem" (Seize the Day) message, and that because our future selves are often so disappointed with us, perhaps the idea is to indulge in and appreciate the precious present.

I recently came to appreciate this lesson when I used a service called "future me." The purpose of this site is to allow people to send themselves an email at some designated point in the future and then reflect back on how they were thinking at the time they wrote this letter. I recently received one from myself I had written two years ago and it was filled with angst, unrequited love, anxiety about unpaid bills, as well as a glimmer of hope for the future. At the time I had never published a book, was pining away for some girl who I now barely remember, and was worried sick about some financial concern that I now see was ridiculous. Why was this guy so stressed out? I wanted to go back and tell him that everything was going to be fine, and that things were going to work out pretty well for him if he would just hang in there. I was also sad to see how little I was enjoying life at that moment, and how the things I was ruminating about at the time turned out to be virtually meaningless in the future.

So, although I was disappointed in seeing the lack of joy in my past self's life, I also learned a valuable lesson about how the things we worry and obsess about rarely come to fruition. I now do things with little thought for the future me, as I realize he is a very harsh judge and difficult to please. I try to constantly live in and find pleasure in the moment, and, although I now may error on the side of hedonism, I find that this is certainly the best recipe for finding humor in everyday situations.

The dangers of mortgaging the present to pay for the future was also demonstrated to me again and again when I worked in a couple of different Nursing Homes. Most of the patients I interacted with had experienced the depression, and this experience indelibly stamped the idea that money should be saved. Again and again I saw people who were struck with Alzheimer's right as they were getting ready to enjoy their "golden years" and it never failed to break my heart. I heard many stories of how people denied themselves everything during the first 65 years of life so they could finally travel and see the world when they got older, only to arrive at retirement to be struck by a debilitating illness. It wasn't uncommon for a couple to have saved as much as a million dollars for their retirement, only to see this entire amount disappear in a couple of years as the health care industry slowly ate away at their savings. This may in fact be the rule rather than the exception, and this is I hope a cautionary tale for anyone who continually denies themselves things in the present. Life is uncertain, but what is a virtual certainty is that as medical science continues to expand the ability to keep people alive, now roughly 80 percent of people will eventually die in a hospital, and this number continues to get bigger. This virtually guarantees a drain on people's savings, and my advice is to spend your money enjoying things now, as the medical system will find a way to get a lot of it before it all said and done.

So am I advocating not saving at all? No, but there is a lesson here about living in the present, and there is an even greater lesson here about the futility of ruminating about the future.
Most of what awaits us is simply unknown, and as we continue to worry about the future precious opportunities to experience joy in the present continue to pass us by. This is where the relationship between mindfulness and humor becomes essential. Every moment in life can become a wonderful learning opportunity if we stay in the here and now. Many people will tell you humor is about "timing", and when we use our time to obsess about some future or past event, the joy of the moment has past. This is the lesson of Gilbert's book, and it speaks directly to the power of mindfulness in alerting us to the comic possibilities around us.