Happy-when

You know the feeling: I’ll be happy when I finish this project. When I solve this financial challenge. When I have the job/house/partner/child I’ve always wanted. My mother calls this “happy-when,” but it actually has a fancy name: the arrival fallacy.

Whatever we call it, it’s a favorite tool for many of us in our battle to avoid being happy. Agreeable external circumstances can certainly make it easier to be happy: some things, like money or health, are well documented to effect us mostly by causing bad feelings when we don’t have them. But we all know that they aren’t sufficient — who can’t think of someone who is unhappy with an outwardly delightful life? — and what’s more, exactly zero studies show that beating ourselves up because our lives are great and why aren’t we happy yet is a helpful strategy.

Sometimes, happy0-when is actually a heads-up that we’re having negative feelings around something: if I’m feeling disheartened by something at work, I might say “I’ll be happy when I get a new job.” Getting a new job might be a perfectly good plan, but it will help me find the right one if I can figure out what’s disheartening me and not pin the blame on, say, my commute or salary.

Other times, happy-when is a clue to our real desires. When I find myself pinning my happiness on a particular thing I try to imagine what it will be like when I have it. How will I feel? And is there anything I can do to get more of that feeling now? Sometimes I think things like “if I had a partner, I would feel loved.” Certain kinds of indulgences make me feel loved, too (bubble baths, anyone?), and some of them are things I can provide for myself. People cheering when I do well also makes me feel loved, and I can make more of an effort to share my accomplishments with friends, or with my parents, who are uber-reliable cheerleaders for anything I am delighted about.

When I think of happy-when as a literal prescription, I feel stuck. Treating it as a clue or a treasure map pointing to the qualities I want to embody, though, feels helpful. How about you? What are you waiting on to be happy?

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