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Happiness and Life Planning

❝I'm killing time while I wait for life to shower me with meaning and happiness.❞ -"Calvin" in Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I'm at lunch mindlessly scrolling through my social media feed when I come across a meme about a tough decision. The meme states, "I'm stuck between YOLO, and I have to pay my bills."

I make fun of this meme in my head because I can easily tell that whoever made it is confused. The person who made this meme presents a false dichotomy; we can either be happy now or happy in the future, but not both.

Suddenly it dawned on me, though, that I'm doing the same thing. I recently took a job with a high salary, thinking that that's what you do. I thought having a high salary and a fancy title would make me happy. When I realized that the job I took turned out to be awful, I had a decision to make - I can quit and turn down the money, or I can put my head down, be miserable, and retire in 10 years.

Whereas the meme I was making fun of highlighted the difference between having fun now and having fun in the future, I was stuck in a pit of endlessly pursuing things that I thought would make me happy only to find out they didn't, and then entering the cycle again.

I learned this far too late, but there is a way to use your money to be happy both now and in the future. The quest for money is not it.


Any talk of happiness has to start with defining what happiness even is. Some people equate happiness with having fun. Therefore, happiness happens if you can get to a point where you are only having fun. Other people interpret happiness as the opposite - they think that to be happy is to be in a state where you never feel sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion. Still, others believe that happiness is simply an endpoint; a place that you have to get to once, and then you're there. Others feel guilty about being happy, while some people feel ashamed that they are not.

With so many interpretations of what happiness is, it makes sense to define it upfront. My views of happiness are based in part on Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Positive Psychology, including the writings of author and happiness expert Tal Ben-Shahar.

Happiness is not a singular point; it's not the end destination. Happiness is a spectrum as well as a way of life. Although happiness is not about only having positive emotions, it is about experiencing more positive emotions than negative emotions. Happiness is not about having fun all the time, but experiencing joy is necessary. Our joy in the present moment has to be combined with a bigger picture journey, though. This is where purpose and meaning come in.


Human beings are awful at predicting how happy or unhappy we will be in the future. For example, almost everybody believes they will be happy after winning the lottery and miserable after becoming paralyzed. However, not long after winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, people tend to revert back to their baseline level of happiness. This is counterintuitive for many of us.

Because it is counterintuitive, many people put their heads down and work too hard, hoping for some future that they think will make them happy. They convince themselves that if they just struggle enough now then it will eventually pay off. So they work hard in high school to get into a good college, thinking that will make them happy. Then they work hard in college to get into a good graduate school. Then they work hard in graduate school to get a good job. Then they work hard at their jobs they can get promotions. Then they put in the work so that they can finally retire. Then they wonder where the happiness is.

This is a case where people have entered the rat race. In the rat race, we sacrifice happiness in the present to get happiness in the future.

Other people, perhaps people who have seen friends or family members struggle in the rat race, focus on the here and now at the expense of the future. They tell themselves that life is short and we only live once, and therefore we need to have fun. People eat bad food now that will cost them years off their life in the future. They engage in risky behaviors today, not caring about the future repercussions. They will spend too much money in the present and not save for the future. People in this camp not only lack impulse control, but they sometimes promote their refusal to delay gratification with pride.

This is a form of hedonism, a focus on pleasure today above all else. With hedonism, we sacrifice the future so that we can have fun today.

Others have written off happiness altogether. This can be something that author Martin Seligman calls learned helplessness. This is where people are so pessimistic that they do not plan for the future. But unlike the hedonist, they don't see any point in attempting to find happiness in the moment either.

We might call this a form of nihilism, where we don't pursue happiness in the present nor the future and instead are stuck in the negative experiences we've had in the past.