The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. That’s what conventional Western wisdom teaches us.

We must find our passion. We must have a dream. We must chase it, if we want to be truly happy.

Normally, this inspires us. This ideology gives us a target. We know what to aim for, and how to progress. And through experience, we learn how to enjoy the process getting there.

But it only works when you have an idea of what your passion is.

Some of us are passionate about everything. How can you find the one thing that truly makes you come alive?

When we have many interests, the wisdom that was meant to help us achieve happiness has the opposite effect. It paralyzes us. We second-guess our decisions. What’s the “right” thing to do? We don’t want to choose the wrong thing, because that will lead to unhappiness. We understand how precious life is, so we shouldn’t waste it with anything less than the best.

We value our future happiness so much, that we overwhelm ourselves with thinking. What’s the right path to take? How can we not end up miserable later on?

The Psychology of Your Future Self

When we look at ourselves in our teenage years, we quickly see how much we’ve changed.

We can laugh at our taste in fashion and music. We can find amusement in how important we thought some things were. When we look at ourselves now, we can appreciate how far we’ve come.

What we don’t recognize is that later, our future selves will be looking back at us now thinking the exact same thing.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert jokingly notes, “At every age, we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age, we’re wrong.”

That’s because we fall into the cognitive trap called the end of history illusion. At any age, we recognize our personal growth up to the present, but we do not predict the same magnitude of personal growth in the future. 1

In other words, people have little idea what they’ll want years from now, and overestimate how much they will know about themselves in the future.

When I interpreted these studies, there was one major implication that stood out. If we make plans for our future happiness, how can we know what our future selves want?

How To Learn What You Want

The end of history illusion shows that you don’t know what we want from life in the future, because you can’t ever know the perspective of your future self.

This creates a Catch-22. You want to find lasting happiness, but you don’t know what will create it. So how well can you plan for your future happiness right now?

Instead of worrying about perfect plans, do these 4 things:

1) Bring the responsibility of happiness to the present. Happiness isn’t something you earn in the future. Happiness is something you create in the present. Whether it’s reckless hedonism (hint: it isn’t) appreciating hard work towards your goals, or enjoying the sunshine on your skin, the present is where you take steps towards being happy. The future is a product of your present, not something that just happens to you. If your goal is to create happiness, take steps now to do it, instead of waiting for a future that never comes.

2) Make imperfect plans. To have foresight and goals is wise. To be trapped in the creation of them is not. Don’t get caught up in the search for a perfect career choice, a perfect significant other, or having a perfect legacy. What seems perfect now, likely won’t be perfect later. That career might not be as awesome as it was in your head. Your perfectly obedient spouse might bore you to death. What you thought was going to be your legacy may not matter just a year later. Like a good startup, having a plan and goals is smart, but you can use new knowledge to pivot when necessary.

If you paralyze yourself into seeking that “perfect plan”, you will never get anything done. There is no guarantee your actions will create happiness. But there is a guarantee that your inaction will.

3) Recognize you are a work in progress. Though it feels good to think you have reached your peak of personal evolution, you really haven’t. Every year teaches you more about yourself, and gives you more perspective on what you want from life.  Recognize that you are constantly adapting, and that you are never the exact same person you were before. Embrace it, and use it to become even better.

4) Move forward, even if you’re uncertain. Even if you don’t know if it’s going to be your life’s mission, do it anyways. Put your behavior before your thoughts and emotions. Be brave enough to act when you don’t know all the outcomes. And learn incrementally along the way.

So how do we know what we want from the future? The answer: we really don’t.

Dan Gilbert says it best:

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.

Instead of focusing on happiness as some future end goal, focus on what we can control right now. What we do know is what we want in the present. So make plans, and take them one step at a time. Enjoy making a few of them obsolete, and appreciate that you now know they aren’t that important to you.

Most importantly, don’t learn solely by planning. Learn by living. 2

Footnotes

  1. End of History Illusion. Quoidbach, Gilbert, Wilson. 2013.
  2. Shoutout to Dan Gilbert for his TED talk about the End of History Illusion.
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