Albert Einstein struck a profound truth about human nature when he said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Without realizing it, Einstein uncovered an important conclusion of the self-help and positive psychology literature: happiness and contentment are byproducts of the pursuit of meaningful goals.
As I’ve been learning the past few weeks, simply setting meaningful goals doesn’t guarantee happiness and contentment. When I met with my coach two weeks ago, I learned that when I set a goal I become so focused on achieving it that I forget about the process. I start seeing life as a means to an end. Deep down I tell myself, “Until I achieve this goal, I cannot start enjoying life.”
In some way or another we are all waiting for something. We’re waiting for “the one” to fall in love with. We’re waiting for a better work situation. We’re waiting to start really living our lives, rather than passively drifting from one problem to the next. The trouble is, when we wait, we tell ourselves “I cannot start enjoying life until I achieve this thing. I will not be at peace until I’m there.”
At first glance it seems like a paradox: How can setting worthwhile goals bring meaning into our lives if they make us live for a future that never quite arrives? Good question. The issue lies within how the goals are being pursued.
There’s a certain skill needed to pursue a goal while enjoying life in the meantime. It involves patience, delayed gratification, a long-term perspective, and the knowledge that the fruit you seek will come if you just put your effort and attention into the actions you are taking now. If you’re looking for “the one”, instead of waiting for him or her, you tell yourself “If I just keep doing what I love, then that person will find their way into my life.” Instead of waiting for work to magically get better, you say to yourself, “I’ll put my effort into the actions I can take now, like examining exactly why I’m dissatisfied at work.”
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of and working towards a better future, but it comes with responsibility and knowledge that life is happening now. Life can only be lived now. Love, peace, contentment are available to you only now—not some time in the future.
Here’s a powerful tool to help you along: every day, after your first break in your workday, ask yourself “Is there joy, ease and lightness in what I’m doing right now?” If the answer is no, then investigate. Find out what’s keeping you from enjoying what you're doing right now. If possible, remove it. If you can't remove it, you can either change it, or embrace your current situation fully. Either way, be patient and give yourself permission to slow down and enjoy the process. With time you will master the skill of setting goals while staying with the present moment.