Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

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I remember reading once that when put to the test, what we think will make us happy usually doesn’t end up actually making us all that happier when we get it. I’ve noticed this in my own life, especially recently thanks to this pandemic. One of the things I’m always longing for is more free time. I’ve always wished that I didn’t have to work so I could spend my days any way I choose, with no obligations or responsibilities. Yet after just a short time “working from home” (I don’t find myself having much actual work), I was even less happy than I was when I was waking up early and spending eight full hours every weekday at my job.

Now this could be just because I have an exceptionally amazing job with coworkers that I consider dear friends, but even when I lost the job I hated and got to spend a summer on unemployment, I was miserable. Back then I attributed it to having to fret about finding another job, but now I think it was more than just that. What I always imagined would make me happy, even what I thought I needed in order to be calm and happy, turned out to be completely wrong.

Why is that? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around it for very long. After a few weeks back in the office full time, I was already back to daydreaming about having more free-time. Even though I just saw that it would do me no good! I’d just spend it being anxious and depressed rather than doing all the productive things I’d pictured myself doing with it. It could have something to do with another interesting tidbit from Time Warped, the time perception book I’ve mentioned.

Apparently we often put things off or make plans we can’t ultimately follow through with because for some reason we imagine ourselves having more time in the future. Yet if we imagined ourselves moving up the date to tomorrow or next week, we’d find our plans ridiculous and out of the question. I definitely think this mindset contributes to my procrastination. It does often seem like things will be easier in the future. I’ll have more time. I’ll be in a better place mentally. I’ll have fixed all the problems I’m struggling with by then. Etc, etc. Humans always have a tendency to be over-optimistic about the future. I always though I was the exception to that rule, given I fear the end of society is just on the horizon. But when it comes to smaller things in my personal life, I fall into the same flawed thinking.

This may seem like depressing news, to find out you actually won’t have more free time or be happier in some imagined future where everything has gone your way. But there is a silver lining. We no longer have to feel like we’re waiting for something before we can be happy. Chances are we wouldn’t be happy when we reached that idyllic future anyway. It’s a useful lesson. We should just learn to enjoy where we are now. We can be happy where we are with what we already have.

Not only do we not need to wait for a distant future to find happiness, we also don’t need to be so afraid of things that may happen in the future either. We may overestimate how happy something will make us, but we also overestimate how detrimental something will be in our lives. Both lottery winners and holocaust survivors both end up pretty close to everyone else in the end when it comes to happiness and a sense of well-being. We will eventually adjust to anything, no matter how amazing or horrific.

With this knowledge we can learn to relax. We can ease into the life that unravels before us each moment. There is no need to become attached, try to avoid/resist, or get upset when something doesn’t go the way we think it should have gone. After all, what do we know? Once we give up our obsession with trying to control every little aspect of our lives, we may find that we are able to live with much more ease. Have faith that this universe is playing out exactly as it should be. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to handle whatever life presents you with. Let go of expectations. They always seems to let us down or prevent us from seeing life for the incredible, beautiful thing it really is.

I know that all the happiness I will ever find is already here inside of me. I’ve been struggling to arrange my world to my whims, when in the end I don’t even really know what will turn out to be best for me. So instead I will try to let go. I will try to take each day for what it is with curiosity and a grateful heart.

Black & White Thinking

One of the things I’ve realized about myself after starting to suspect I am on the autistic spectrum is that I tend to have trouble seeing the gray areas of life. This hasn’t been an overall negative thing. In fact, I believe it is the reason that I am able to stand so firmly in my beliefs. A compliment someone gave me once that I’ve always particularly liked is that I “have the courage of my convictions.”

I think that this has contributed a lot to my decision 8 years ago to go vegan. I have seen a lot of other women, such as Greta Thunberg, who are not only vegan, but autistic as well. I would love to see some research into whether or not this is a trend. I believe the autistic brain may be more able to avoid cognitive dissonance in some ways. When I turn my mind toward a subject like animal agriculture, there is a very stark contrast between right and wrong. Once I had the information, I found it simply impossible to imagine continuing to participate in such a clear atrocity.

So in some ways I do feel my autistic traits (whether I would truly fit the diagnostic criteria or not) are some of my greatest strengths as an individual, things that I am quite proud of. However, understanding this tendency for black and white thinking has also allowed me to realize how I am hindered by it.

Like most aspects of autism, this becomes more of a problem when it comes to social situations. Human beings are one big gray area that despite my best efforts, I am still struggling to understand. It makes it quite difficult to form meaningful relationships with people when you are constantly viewing them as either all good or all bad. Either someone loves me or they hate me. I matter to someone or I mean completely nothing at all to them. See the problem? Neither of these perceptions is very often the reality. And even though I’ve come to recognize this, it doesn’t change the way I view the world.

I find myself constantly going around in mental circles when I am given contradictory signals from the people in my life. I just can’t seem to comprehend that both signals can be true and valid. Someone can be cold to you from time to time and still love you. Just because a person does something hurtful or inconsiderate towards you doesn’t mean that they think you’re worthless. I know that this is true because I can see these contradictions in myself. I have been terribly cruel to people that meant the world to me in the past. But that didn’t mean the feelings I had for them were a lie. Yet it’s hard enough for me to reconcile these strange scenarios within my own heart and mind, let alone deciphering them in someone else.

This seems to lead to rather rocky relationships with other people and even effect the way I view myself. It’s often hard for me to accept someone demonstrating negative behaviors can still be a good person. I also struggle immensely in that regard when it comes to my self image. Sometimes I love myself and feel like I am incredible. Other times I dwell only on my flaws and mistakes, thinking it impossible that any good exists within me at all. Exaltation or condemnation, there is no in between.

I truly hope it proves to be beneficial to have at least begun to realize when I am being influenced by this black and white thinking. Perhaps with practice I will be able to overcome the negative impact this has the potential to inflict on my future relationships.