Happiness in the Present, Happiness in the Future — A Difficult Balance.

In happiness, many tensions can’t be permanently solved, and instead require constant thought and effort.

For instance, I often debate, within myself, how to strive for my own built-in happiness, and yet stay mindful of the effect that other people’s happiness (or unhappiness) has on me. Also, I want to accept myself, yet also expect more of myself.

Another example is the question of how to think about now and the future. Clearly it’s important to be present in the moment and to think about now, and clearly it’s important to take present action with the future in mind.

I was reminded of the importance of the atmosphere of growth — which has an element of future-thinking — when I read this letter by John Ruskin. As a young man, Ruskin feared he would die of tuberculosis. He wrote to a friend in 1841:

I have begun a work of some labour which would take me several years to complete; but I cannot read for it, and do not know how many years I may have for it. I don’t know if I shall even be able to get my degree; and so I remain in a jog-trot, sufficient-for-the-day style of occupation – lounging, planless, undecided, and uncomfortable, except when I can get out to sketch – my chief enjoyment. I am beginning to consider the present as the only available time, and in that humour it is impossible to work at anything dry or laborious or useful. I spend my days in a search after present amusement, because I have not spirit enough to labour in the attainment of what I may to have future strength to attain; and yet am restless under the sensation of days perpetually lost and employment perpetually in vain.”

(The image is Ruskin’s drawing of the Grand Canal in Venice.)

How do you think about balancing the challenges of present and the future?

* Last week, I had the fun of meeting the famous Swiss Miss in person — love her design blog. If you haven’t seen it before, check it out.

* Want to launch a group for people doing happiness projects together? Email me at grubin @ gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “starter kit” in the subject line.

  • Wow! Thanks Gretchen, I really admire how you manage to put those thought provoking questions out there.

    I have a thought, and it’s just a thought, that if we could really develop a strong habit of consistent presence and awareness, we would naturally be in ‘an atmosphere of growth’. In that atmosphere we couldn’t help but live a deeply fulfilling and rewarding life. I think maybe the account of what Ruskin was feeling, shows he wasn’t experiencing presence, except when he was sketching!

    To live fully in the present, without attachment to past or future, to trust it, I think that would take more courage than even the most challenging of our carefully thought out future ambitions. The path of presence may take us somewhere very different to what we previously thought was success. That, I think, would be the real challenge.

  • LivewithFlair

    This weekend, an older and wiser woman told me that the best way to handle holiday stress (and my mood swings) is to “keep my wits about me.” She advised me to exercise, sleep well, and avoid all the sugar. Her advice essentially reminded me to make choices now that will enable the rest of my day to go well. This week in particular, I’m making present choices to gain a future happiness pay off. http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com

  • My present = thoughts about the future. : (

  • I think it is important that welive for and enjoy today, but also realize that our actions of today make up our tomorrows.

  • MMMmmmmmm, Good Question.

    Currently I am reading Eckhart Tolle’s
    ‘The Power of Now’, so I might let you
    know in a Future Comment 🙂

    All the Best,
    To your Happy Inspiration,

  • An interesting way to look at happiness as it relates to the present/future is to think about what we would or would not do if we had six months to live. While we all have to plan for the future, we have no promise of tomorrow, so we shouldn’t live as if we do. By this I mean delaying or postponing doing things just because we think the time isn’t right or we’re not in the right place. The reality is that there is never really a perfect time or place for anything, because life offers no guarantees. But at the same time, we shouldn’t let a fear of the future paralyze us, as it seems that is what was happening to Ruskin.

  • I’m so confused about happiness – it seems like things can just change overnight. Do you get the same feeling sometimes? What do you do about it when some exercise or a swim – things that normally break me out of my funk – just don’t seem to help?

    • Hermitess

      I sit down. take a deep breath, cry and stomp my feet alone somewhere until I get the anger out. Then I sit with paper and pen and write solutions on the top of the page, then start writing. Looking to the solution will instill hope. You can’t solve a problem until you start looking at the solutions. Then jump in with both feet and do your best at the best solution. Talk to good friends and they may have had the same problems or could give you good ideas for some more solutions.
      If you fall in a puddle, don’t you get up? The solution is getting up. I sit in my puddle only long enough to see I can make mud pies from it. >>hands Eric a towel 🙂

  • “…Also, I want to accept myself, yet also expect more of myself…”–herein lies my dilemma.

    I feel ungrateful for my life thus far as well as my surroundings because I expect more from me. I am not sure if the expectation is pure gluttony or rightfully mine to have, hold and enjoy.

  • I think it is all about finding the middle way…between having dreams, aspirations, wants for the future and finding peace and joy with what is right now. I tend to veer toward future-thinking and I have to remind myself to look around and remember that I have an amazing life already and even if none of that other ‘stuff’ ever happens, all will be ok.

  • Teamocil

    Hey Gretchen,

    I like this post. I have been reading a book by George Leonard about the subject of mastery, and the many phases of its involvement in our lives, which feels relevant to what you spoke about here. Some dabble in things but don’t commit themselves to it, some obsess but then fall off, other just stay at the same level-content but neither going up nor down, as opposed to true people who wish to put the long term effort into mastery of their given subject. Leonard argues that mastery is a life-long project of small but incremintal steps that usually won’t give you a rush today, and require long periods of time practicing the latest small step, but the long term rewards will be more deeply fulfilling than any short term rewards.

    His book is on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Mastery-Keys-Success-Long-Term-Fulfillment/dp/0452267560


  • I think these time-related paradoxes are at the heart of why happiness advice is sometimes so frustratingly unhelpful. I ran into this problem as soon as I started my “How to Savor” project. I was trying to apply savoring strategies, such as: “think about how this positive experience will end soon and enjoy it even more in the present”. But I found that these had the contrary effect. I found myself thinking instead: “how can I enjoy this at all, given that it will send soon? But I’d better start enjoying it right now! Oh my, I’m failing to enjoy! By the time I figure out how to enjoy, this will be over!” I’m still working on a solution to this. As for the general now vs. future dilemma, I think that most of the difficulty is in trying to keep both active at the same time. It gets easier if you segregate the different modes of being to different times. Some solutions that work for me: – I spend more of my morning and afternoon in future-oriented mode (the mode that comes naturally to me). Through later afternoon and evening, I wind down towards the present – sometimes with the help of meditation or other ways of bringing my awareness to the present. – I have found that certain times of life are more future-oriented, others more present-oriented. Each phase may last for a few years. I think this happens naturally, but it helps to become aware of it. Right now, I am in a present-oriented phase of my life; I acknowledge this fact and refuse to beat myself up for not being as productive as 3 years ago.

  • Gretchen, have you seen this article? http://ht.ly/3dkQP
    It’s a recent study on the way that big positive and negative events (i.e. things that we dream or worry about happening) don’t always have the effect on our happiness that we think they will. I’m not sure how much I agree with the findings – after all, reaching a goal (like finally getting a book published) always, in my experience, feels great. It’s interesting to think about, though, especially when thinking of the negative outcomes that we fret about. Sort of interesting, I think, in the context of this post. Thanks for starting the conversation! Best – Stacey

  • RealMe42

    Gretchen, your sentence about acceptance and expecting got me thinking:


    You touched on something important here–the difficulties of self-acceptance and self-improvement. Thanks!

  • Peninith1

    this is one of those dilemmas that can really get you tangled in a feeling that all choices are false and you can’t do anything right! But this is really a delusion. Stephen Covey, in the good old 7 Habits of Highly Successful People gave advice that I think speaks very strongly to this issue.
    His division of our use of time into four quadrants is what I’m thinking of–I would put the ‘savor now’ things in Quadrant I, urgent and important; and the planning or preparing for the long run in Quadrant II, important but not urgent. Refinancing your house might be something that makes a big difference in the long run, and you can set aside time to work on it and be very present with it while you’re working on it. That will increase your happiness. On the same day, you might do your regular walk with the dog or plan and cook a good meal. It’s urgent and important to exercise and eat well every day. And while you’re sauteeing veggies, don’t be worrying about the refi! And BTW those activities are building your long term good health.
    Quadrant III & IV are the areas you want to get away from “urgent but not important'” (i.e. someone else’s priorities, for example) and “not urgent or important” (i.e. just a waste of time. )

  • hermitess

    I enjoy reading the things you have found that others have said that inspire you, such as the one about “I am the catalyst…” by Haim Ginott. Words like these and others should be pasted on our mirrors to reinforce the reality held within.

    Knowing that each time I read and reread something like those wonderful words it sinks in a bit further. We learn by repetition. I am the catalyst… I AM.

  • Hermitess

    Balancing… means I have too much on my plate. I stop and rethink what is important and get back to a peaceful state of enjoying the now again. Balancing things gives me the feeling that something is out of whack. Cut back, see whats important and get back to the reality that I’m only human and can do only so much.