The Paradox: Changing the World vs. Enjoying the Present

  • December 2, 2010 by Corbett Barr
  • 33 Comments

Changing the world (or at least your own world) is important. There are plenty of things wrong with the way things are.

The economy sucks, corruption seems rampant. We’re inching ever closer to a health care crisis as 74.1% of adults are overweight or obese (in the U.S.). We also live in the wealthiest society in the world and yet have some of the relative highest poverty rates among industrialized nations.

The list goes on.

And that’s just on the macro scale. On a personal level, most of us have things we’d like to improve too. We want to get in better shape, build financial independence, take more time off and improve our relationships. We want to learn more and achieve more and earn more recognition.

It’s easy to become consumed with thoughts of the future. “When I finish this project things will be great.” “It’ll just take two years to build this business, and then I can do all that stuff I really want to do.” When you arrive you’ll be happy, goes the thinking.

There’s one major problem with that frame of mind. When you arrive, you won’t actually be any happier. This is known as the “arrival fallacy.” As Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project explains, “…by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs.”

I’m no expert on happiness, but luckily there are people like Gretchen who dedicate their careers to studying what makes us happy. To me, in the end, life is really about enjoying your life and helping other people enjoy theirs. Happiness (or enjoyment maximization) should then be our goal. Those other things we focus on (health, work, travel) should exist because they help us or other people become happier (making other people happy can be a great way to make yourself happy).

Experts tell us that happiness is something we have to be personally responsible for in the present. Happiness isn’t something we arrive at. It’s something we have to be in the moment and recognize in our daily lives. We have to work at enjoying the present.

Enjoying the present is an important part of happiness, but it can fall short without the positive change that setting and achieving goals brings.

Working to change the world or our personal situations can lead to even greater happiness, but not if our only reason for pursuing the goal is the future anticipated happiness.

Are you sensing a paradox here? How can you be truly happy if happiness requires enjoying the present, but changing the world involves focusing on the future?

Maybe you’ve struggled with this as I have. The all-consuming nature of working towards big positive changes often comes at the expense of enjoying the present. It’s almost as if unplugging from goals temporarily is the only way to really focus on the present moment.

I’ve learned a lot about my personal happiness as I’ve transitioned from working stiff to “traditional” entrepreneur to lifestyle entrepreneur over the years. Having the freedom I have now to work on what I choose (and when and where I choose) has made an incredible difference in how I feel every day.

But I can still get stuck in the “I’ll be really happy when…” mentality. I have to work to recognize that I’m letting an extreme focus on the future limit my current happiness. I have to remind myself to enjoy the present.

Unplugging from goals temporarily can be a great way to enjoy the present. I’m a big fan of the occasional digital sabbatical or analog weekend. But this is a temporary fix, a resetting of perspective.

There’s a better approach than vacillating between future focus and present focus, looking for happiness in the moments between trying to change the world.

If you’re interested in being as happy as you personally possibly can, there are two things you must do:

  1. Do something you love for a living.

  2. Learn to love the journey instead of merely anticipating the destination.

Like I said, even when you do something you love for a living, it’s still easy to get pulled back into the future anticipation mode. You have to consciously work to appreciate and then enjoy all (or at least most) of the day-to-day tasks and work you do. You also have to avoid the danger of only deriving happiness from one aspect of your life.

At least that’s my strategy. And it’s a work in progress. What’s yours?

How do you change the world but enjoy the present at the same time?

I’d love to hear your strategies in the comments.

photo by ben matthews :::

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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TrafficColeman December 2, 2010 at 7:22 am

We all should be happy about our situation. If you don’t put hard work into your life, then you will be one of those unhappy people…its sad to say..

“Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

Mike Donghia December 2, 2010 at 7:53 am

Corbett,

Awesome post – well written and well thought out. I can’t say I completely agree with your conclusion though. What a jerk, right ;)

I just wrote a post and enjoyed a lively discussion on my site about not setting goals. I think the fallacy is that people who don’t set goals won’t achieve anything. Let’s take someone most people know – leo babuata. Leo has been letting go of goals for over a year now.

Instead of striving towards a future destination, he just does whatever he’s excited about in the present moment. 1.) This makes the world a better, happier place and 2.) You’ll probably get places faster this way than when you try to push yourself to do something that you don’t want to do just b/c its a goal.

Although part of this argument is pure semantics, I think it makes a huge difference in the way we live. At least it has for me.

Thanks for adding to the discussion. And just for the record – I think you’re a pretty cool guy!

Mike Donghia

Corbett December 2, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Don’t be such a jerk, Mike ;) Really though, thanks for the thoughtful counterpoint. Keep in mind with your example about Leo that he’s in a much different position than most and can perhaps afford not to set goals like other people might need to, you know?

Eric December 2, 2010 at 8:06 am

Corbett, great, great post buddy.

There is a shit ton of things to be angry about in this world and you’ve mentioned some of them, but really what can I do to control that. Nothing.

My focus is strictly on the things I can control, like attitude and let the other stuff I can’t, like what the world is doing, fall to the waste side. If I do this it helps me to live the best I can because I focus strictly on the moment and living that moment to the best of my ability… regardless of what I’m doing.

Eric

Corbett December 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I like your line of thinking around “what can I control,” Eric. When working on a big project I like to remember that you can’t actually control the outcome, you can only influence it by controlling what you put into it.

Renee December 2, 2010 at 9:02 am

I’ve found that if I use the goal simply as the context, the game within which I’m playing, then I can allow myself to enjoy and get wrapped up in the present moment activity that leads to reaching my goal. I just look up periodically to the goal to see if I’m on track, but then immerse myself in today’s activity as if IT is the goal. It’s a practice in progress b/c I’ve been so goal oriented for so long, and the attainment of the actual goal is usually a bit of let down – all that lead up to such a brief moment.

Of course, being hyper-appreciative of what I do have allows that sense of accomplishment to go on and on past just the inital moment of achievement. I have a vehicle that I wanted forever and I enjoy it and appreciate it every time I get in it and I get the enjoyment from it every bit as much now as when I first got it – 8 years ago!! It still feels like I just got it yesterday.

Corbett December 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Sounds like a great approach, Renee. Thanks for sharing!

Bud Hennekes December 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

Kind of depressing eh? The fact that our world is in such disarray? When I think about everything that’s wrong with the world I can’t help but feel a hole in my heart. But then I remind myself, that even with dark cloud hanging above our heads, there’s so much to be grateful for. There’s so many problems we can join hands to fix.

It’s easy to get caught up in the negative current floating through our T.V’s and internet browsers, but in the end we remain in control of our destiny.

We may have a lot of work to do, but because of people like you I know we won’t give up without putting a fight.

As I like to say, gratitude is my religion.

Thanks for the thoughtful post man.

Corbett December 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Sorry if the post was a downer, Bud! I was intending the opposite as the ultimate outcome. But yes, there are lots of problems out there we can all work to fix.

Scott Kostolni December 2, 2010 at 10:07 am

Corbett,

I don’t see a paradox here at all. I don’t separate changing the world from being happy. By being happy, and choosing to be the best version of yourself in every single moment you change the world by just being a part of it. You set an example and inspire others to do the same. In this respect I encourage people to think ab0ut themselves rather than about changing the world.

I saw what people like you, Karol Gajda, and Everett Bogue were doing and how your lives changed because of it and I was inspired to change my own. When I did I was amazed to see the reaction I got. My friend Chris was inspired and started to make new decisions in his own life. A few other friends have started developing their own businesses and are on their way to becoming financially independent. This was never something I intended or expected but it happened just because I started to live in a way that made me happiest.

If you want to change the world then chase the things that you are passionate about and live life as an example. Everything else will happen on its own.

~Scott

Parker Lee December 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

Scott said it right. I have nothing more to add.

thanks for the post, the both of you.

Corbett December 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Hey Scott, that’s an interesting angle. I’m not sure I can agree that “everything else will happen on its own” though. Yes, “being the change you want to see in the world” is a start, but don’t you also have to do something to enact that change?

Ryan Renfrew @lifestyle design December 2, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Corbett,

Right on brother, we’ve got to stop chasing after things we want sometimes and enjoy the things we’ve got.

The problem with setting goals is that sometimes we can be to rigid and neglect to see new and different oppertunities open up along the journey.

I’ll conclude with 2 words,

1/ Appreciation.
2/ Adaptability.

bLAZE yOUR tRAIL

Cara Stein December 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm

This is closely related to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: mindfulness. We’re supposed to be present in the moment, and that’s supposed to be the greatest source of lasting happiness. That’s what the psychology experiments done by academics say, anyway.

When you do work and go into the flow state, where you’re no longer aware of the passage of time or the world around you, only what you’re doing… is that mindfulness/living in the moment? Or is it the opposite?

I’ve definitely noticed that nothing makes me more deeply happy than doing work I care about and hitting the flow state.

Ivan December 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm

The answer for me is in your post “Best of both worlds and investing in the process”. Still working on ti though :) )

James Schipper December 2, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I am working on something similar to this right now. There is no such thing as happily ever-after. You don’t suddenly get happy after you escape something, you get some new thing, or you reach some place (even retirement).

Be happy with life. Don’t live for weekends or vacations.

Life will always be in the way. Until it isn’t anymore.

Chase Night December 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I think we enjoy life now for ourselves, but we work to change the world for others. If everything we do to make the world a better is place is for our own happiness, we aren’t really making it better because we’re just buying into the selfish “me me me” culture same as anyone. So when we’re doing big pictures things we ought to be thinking about the happiness of future people. We might not ever see the fruits of our labor, but someone will and their happiness then is just as important as our happiness now.

Satya Colombo December 2, 2010 at 6:52 pm

This used to bug the shit out of me when enlightened people talked about how the world is perfect as it is, when clearly it’s a big frickn mess…

Actually, being in real joy in yourself is world-changing. The space I carry as i walk, the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes — that’s what changes the world. Really. I think we’re mostly blind to the real power we carry and the potential that lies dormant for the most part — how can we really expect to see it from these eyes?

have you ever had a really nasty thought, or an angry moment, and then watched as the world crumbled around you at the same time…? Or even the simplest thing like backing into a dumpster, or breaking a glass… the other day i was thinking about something that pissed me off, and i tapped the edge of my water glass with a spoon. I wasn’t all that surprised to see the glass break right open….

At those times when you can see the real beauty and perfection of all that is – the world actually changes. Not only from the personal perspective, but in turth…! That’s because we’re made up of the dust and atoms of the universe itself. The grand illusion is that we exist as something separate from that.

scholastica amel December 2, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Yes, I feel that certain paradox too, recently I’ve been talking about happiness too. And I do realize that my definition of happiness is quite different , a little bit against the current. I begin to like people like you whom I never met in real life instead of liking people around me. The paradox is, if i’m pulling myself away from the community then how can I be the agent of change?
Sometimes I am afraid that I’m just making a group. If this whole blogging stuff means a way to create new kind of lunch table and cool people to eat with, then it would be pointless. We’re not changing anything.

Well, my strategy at the moment is to keep saying “tomorrow is lie” to myself over and over again. Just live at the present. Act like today was 11 December 2012.

I will keep on writing , planting seeds to every soil. It may be crushed, never grow, etc etc, but again, tomorrow is a lie. I just want to be as sincere as possible , realizing that I am only a little part of the system and live at the moment.

“When I was a kid I want to change the world, when I was a teen I want to change the community, as for now I just want to change myself”

Sandy Grason December 3, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Great post & I didn’t find it depressing at all :-D
I call this way of being “Fill In The Blank” Syndrome- which is:
When ____(blank) happens, then I’ll be happy.
You can fill in that blank with just about anything…. When I get married, have a baby, get that big house, new car, make a million dollars…. THEN I’ll really be happy!
The problem is there is always another _____ (blank) to fill in. And we never get “there”.
There is no “there”, right? There’s only here, now.

Here’s the best way I’ve ever found of curing my own Fill In The Blank Syndrome. And I stole it from my sister, who read or heard someone else say it. She used it as a toast one evening & it’s become a daily practice for me.

I declare THIS a Perfect Moment!

I play a little game with myself to see how many times a day I can make that toast.

So Cheers, Corbett!
I declare this a perfect post- you rock. ;-)
xoxo
Sandy

Derek Potocki December 4, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Hi Corbett and other fine Commentators,

You are totally right in this post, that the end will not bring you happiness. But having a direction, focus and passion that only exciting goal can bring does bring happiness. So it’s not “arriving” but going there is what matters.

Contrary to popular belief happiness can be a by-product of having exciting goals. Aimless floating in the moment doesn’t work well. I have tried it before.

I have goals. And I have more present moment awareness than ever.

I have seen some influential bloggers, after they made some money online they have announced that they have no goals anymore. They’re just happy in present moment doing what they love. I have doubts about it…

My take on this ( supported by thousands of years of human history) is that we need goals like water. An we can stay at present moment while we go for what we value most.

From my angle, there is no paradox.

Love to all

Derek Potocki

PS: Your post hits a very important issue. I live and breath my goals every minute. And I love them. And I love my present moments. Like the one right now…

Elisa December 5, 2010 at 11:14 am

Damn #Reverb10 project has had me thinking about this a lot. For me, it is a paradox that extends beyond happiness.

When you are working towards a goal, it is so easy to put your head down and march forward. Whether the goal be small (writing an eBook) or bigger (open a business) or huge (change the world) you can’t just accomplish those things by blinking them into manifestation. As you mentioned in a previous post, they are going to take hard work (work harder than many people are *really* willing to put in.)

So you hustle and flow and surround yourself with other hustlers and convince yourself that a day of gallivanting around a new city or learning a new song on the guitar is an example of appreciating moments. But then it comes to be December and someone asks “Describe a moment of wonder in 2010″ and you stop short and realize you can’t imagine a moment when you were so completely in love with every single piece of it that it is permanently etched in your memory bank.

You didn’t stop to appreciate it.

Ferris Bueller, he knew what he was talking about. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around every once and awhile, you could miss it.

Andrzej December 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I’m no expert on happiness, but if we think in a way of “When I finish this project things will be great” then we sure miss something and should rethink our way. It’s quite possible that we’re walking wrong way.

When we need to say “When I finish…” let’s stop for a while and ask ourselves “does what I do bring me closer to REALLY being happy?” and let’s not be surprised if the answer will be “NO”.

…but even then it’s a good thing, because then we will know what to throw out from our lives ;)

Nicholas Reese December 10, 2010 at 7:38 am

Wow this post smacked me across the face. This week I have been working on one hell of a project. I too have insane flexibility and regularly enjoy the moment but this week has been a rollercoaster haha. This definitely helped me get the journey back in perspective.

Seth M. Baker December 12, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Hey Corbett, you’re right on with this post, but I’d like to add that future-gazing and dissatisfaction with the present can sometimes be useful, the way a benign tumor is useful in letting you know there’s a dangerous underlying illness requiring treatment.

I used to have a serious ‘I’ll be happier when…’ mindset. My circumstances (read: dead-end job) sucked and I was always looking to the future for my happiness.

This attitude made me a pretty negative guy. I was waiting for my ship to come in, but I realized that I would be waiting a long time (read: forever).

I knew I had to change my own circumstances, and I finally worked up the courage to do it.

So I quit my job, dragged my wife with me to the other side of the world, and starting building a freelance career. I’ve worked my ass off since then, but I couldn’t be happier.

Attitudes are infectious. and I think when people enjoy the present, the people around them are positively affected. I’d like to think that my little contribution is removing one negative attitude from the world.

However, if I didn’t have this negative attitude, if, in the past I hadn’t been so dissatisfied with the present, I never would have made the decisions I made.

If I had convinced myself ‘right now things are good, I’m happy and living in the moment,’ I probably wouldn’t have quit my job or started freelancing or made the changes that allowed me to address the underlying problem.

Corbett December 13, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Hey Seth, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Congrats on making the HUGE shift in mindset from “where’s mine?” to “how can work to get what I want?”

And I completely agree, attitudes are infectious (in both positive and negative ways). I’ve been on a kick lately to hang out more with extra positive people and find that I become more positive when I do.

Kristin December 13, 2010 at 7:26 pm

The paradox has been all-consuming for me lately!

I recently started learning about where our clothes come from – the workers, the fields, the environments, the labor laws. And I decided, “I’m going to help fix that by starting my own, good, fashion line!”

But now I’m so busy attempting change, that I anticipate will one day make me feel really great about the world, that I’m neglecting my day-to-day fun, enjoyable stuff.

It really is all about balance. Having work you’re passionate about is a blessing, but it’s also a bit of a mental curse. Of course, unless eloquently written (like you have here) it just comes off as downright righteous.

Thanks for this, Corbett!

Corbett December 13, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Hey Kristin, it’s great to be really motivated by something, isn’t it? I hear you about the whole balance thing though. My balance doesn’t come on a day-to-day basis so much, but more in big longer bursts.

Either way, you’re right about walking that “righteous” line. It’s good to have friends who keep you from going too far into the deep end.

Jesse Land January 31, 2011 at 12:46 am

Indeed! If you’re not enjoying your days, you’re not enjoying your life.

Avibha January 11, 2013 at 9:59 am

Here’s the question: Who wants to be happier?. What did you do to born? what did you do to be born as a boy, as a girl? what did you do to have those parents? what did you do for going to this or that school? keep asking that question until you arrive to the present moment, what did you do to write that article? The answer should be nothing. The thing is, most people think they ‘do’. You haven’t done anything, so those problems out there in the world, they’ve been created by something supreme, and they’re perfect as they are, so are your own personal problems. When you stop thinking you do, that section of the brain that keeps on telling you something is wrong, suddenly stops too. You deserve to be happy.

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