“Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
I promise this essay isn’t an attempt to convince you that you’re living inside The Matrix. (Okay, maybe it is a bit.)
But do you ever find that days, weeks, or even months have passed that you didn’t feel present for? I describe this odd sensation as feeling like you’re going through the motions like Bill Murray trapped in Groundhog Day.
Every day bleeds into the next because you’re future-focused, and what you’re doing right now only feels valuable insofar as it’s laying the groundwork for something else; the next stage of your career, the renovation that means the house is “done,” a number in the bank account that means you’ll never have to worry about money again.
I think it’s fair to say we both know this is total BS. We’ve climbed enough mountains in our lifetime to know that as soon as we get what we want, we’re already planning what’s next.
The problem is not with the aim or the goal but with the belief that we can cross a finish line that will magically make these uncomfortable feelings disappear. In psychology, they call this the hedonic treadmill.
You know that promotion that would change your life?
You know that new kitchen you obsess over because it would make life much better?
You know that extra cash that would mean all of life’s money troubles would disappear?
Will they provide everlasting happiness?
We can blame this on the hedonic treadmill.
It’s in our human nature to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
Put another way: No matter what we do, buy, or hope will change our life permanently, it’s a short-lived shot of happiness injected into our life.
I understand why people don’t want to believe this. Because it forces us to question why we’re working so damn hard to change things and to be present with what is right now.
When I realized this, I began to reflect on what it meant for my life in a way I couldn’t when I was lost in the chase. Accepting that we have a baseline is liberating. Most of what we’re chasing is nothing more than stupid carnival prizes in a game we didn’t know we were playing.
If the $40,000 kitchen renovation will give you a flash-in-the-pan taste of happiness, is it worth the years of your life you need to sacrifice to pay that off?
Is it worth more hours in the office?
Is it worth less time with your family?
Is it worth the crippling stress?
You have no control over the hedonic treadmill. Still, you can control how much of your life you’re willing to trade for a future that won’t make you any happier in the present.
It’s a hard habit to break because, as philosopher Alan Watts explains:
“Take education. What a hoax. As a child, you are sent to nursery school. In nursery school, they say you are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then first grade is coming up and second grade and third grade… In high school, they tell you you’re getting ready for college. And in college you’re getting ready to go out into the business world… [People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.”
It’s drilled into us from the day we’re born to always think of what’s next.
You end up chasing carrots to eat when you’re not even hungry. Hell, you probably don’t even like the taste of carrots.
This lack of presence is toxic for our children. They end up repeating the same cycle we do when we role model the idea that we need to prioritize a future self (that may never come) over time spent with them.
Life only feels short because we burn much of our alive time on shit that doesn’t matter.
Do you want to experience a deep, rich, and fulfilling life?
Start by asking, what carrots are you chasing? Are they worth the sacrifice? And what values would you honor in the present if you stopped living for the future?
I can say family means everything to me, and I’ll do whatever it takes to support and provide for them. But if I’m consumed by my phone when I’m with my ten-month-old daughter, what value am I reinforcing? To make more money in my business so I have the freedom to do exactly what I’m too busy to enjoy right now?
To honor my values means putting the phone down, looking into her eyes, and giving her literally the only thing she wants and needs from me. My presence. And that right there—being present enough to enjoy our lives—is what will give us the happiness we crave.