I was prompted to think about happiness last week when a note written on the subject by Albert Einstein was sold for $1.56m.

He gave it to a courier in Tokyo in 1922 instead of a tip. Having just heard that he’d won the Nobel prize for physics he told the messenger that, if he was lucky, the note would become valuable – how right he was!

But was he also right in what he wrote in the note itself? It said:

“A calm and humble life will bring more happiness

than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

This would seem to suggest that working towards and achieving our goals won’t necessarily bring happiness. And, coming from someone who seemingly had done just that, perhaps he knew what he was talking about?

I know from personal experience that I’ve sometimes felt a surprising sense of anti-climax when I’ve achieved something I’ve worked very hard to get.

And I’ve come across other people who’ve put off doing things they love in order to work towards something else in the future – so they can take that holiday of a lifetime or enjoy their retirement, for example – only to get to that point later on and find that they’re too ill to enjoy it properly or the person they’d planned to enjoy it with is no longer around.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t plan for the future and that we should throw caution to the wind – not at all. What I am saying, however, is that I believe we can benefit from focusing on today as well as tomorrow.

I think it’s about striking a balance between journey and destination, not being a slave to the pursuit of happiness itself – recognising that all emotions ebb and flow (see my earlier blog: ‘Who’s in charge, you or your emotions?’).

Can we continue to develop as people, to work towards a different or better future, whilst not completely trashing or dismissing who we are and where we are right now – not fall into the trap of ‘never good enough’…?

When I think back to the achievements that have brought me less joy than I’d expected they would – or where I’ve had a sense of anti-climax – it’s often been because of some or all of the following factors:

  • What I thought I wanted at the outset had changed by the time I got to the end – and perhaps I hadn’t noticed or adapted my plan accordingly
  • I’d changed
  • Other people had changed
  • Circumstances had changed
  • Things had gone wrong, or I’d encountered problems which adversely affected the outcome and I was still angry about that
  • The process I went through, the actual experience of the doing of it all, hadn’t been much fun
  • Maybe I actively disliked some of the things I (thought I) had to do to get there
  • I’d struggled more than I thought I should have had to – maybe I thought I’d made  mistakes along the way
  • I thought other people had been obstructive where I’d hoped they would have been more helpful/supportive
  • It had all taken longer than originally planned – or than I thought it should have taken
  • It had cost me more than I’d planned – in money or effort, or I’d missed another opportunity or sacrificed time on something else, or with someone else, that mattered to me, too
  • The recognition I got from other people for my success felt begrudging or tinged with envy
  • In retrospect my approach had become less about perseverance and more of an act of out-and-out stubbornness (with a good dose of ‘I’ll show them‘ thrown in!)

So, back to that balance between process and end result:

The purpose of any journey is to get somewhere – but it can also be an event in its own right, too. So instead of spending the whole of a train journey thinking about where I’m going and what I’m going to be doing when I get there, I often take time to enjoy the view from the window as we go, too.

I’m not a keen gardener but I have friends who are – and they enjoy the choosing of the plants, the planting, the tending, the weeding (ie the process) just as much as the end result when they sit there with a cup of tea or glass of wine on a summer’s evening and enjoy the blooms.

When we want to lose weight or get fit, choosing a regime that includes too many things we hate – or which denies us too much of what we enjoy – can work against us. If (and sometimes that’s a very big ‘if’) we’re successful, how happy are we really, and don’t we often slip back into old habits – often with the effect of putting back on all, or at least some of, the weight we’ve lost or losing some of the fitness we’ve worked so hard to build?

Sustainability depends upon doing things in a way that’s a good enough fit with who we are to be bearable or, even, enjoyable as we go.

Sharing our experiences (and challenges) with other people can really make a difference. It can enrich our own pleasure, cultivate the humility Einstein mentioned and provide opportunities for others to help and support us – with a spin-off that they’re more likely to understand, appreciate and share in our eventual success.

Doing things more slowly can be helpful, too – who says that faster is always better?

Sometime it is – but not always.

There’s whole international movement promoting ‘slow’ that fits very well, I think, alongside mindfulness and making a deliberate choice to enjoy and appreciate the here and now.

I read a good book on the subject a while ago: ‘In Praise of Slow’ by Carl Honoré – and he’s done a TED Talk on the subject, too – I think he talks a lot of good sense, and he delivers it with humility and humour.

Planning for, and working towards, the future is important and laudable, I think. But so, too, is being in the present moment.

We can find pleasure in the planning and anticipation itself, of course, but if we sacrifice our today for a better tomorrow and that tomorrow (for whatever reason) never comes, what was the point?

Can we find a way to work towards our goals whilst still enjoying (at least some of)  what we’re doing to get there? This might go some way towards addressing the restlessness that Einstein talked about – and slowing down and being more mindful can help us feel calmer and happier as we do it, too.

If we never focus fully on what we’re doing right here and now because we’re always too busy thinking about what we’re doing next, not only might we not be doing things as well as we’re really able to, but it’s also highly probable that we’re not enjoying or appreciating anything we’re doing either.

Something John Lennon said comes to mind here as an appropriate way to round this all off:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.

When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I wrote down ‘happy’.

They told me I didn’t understand the assignment,

and I told them they didn’t understand life.”