Ep. 45 – The ‘Happy When’ Fallacy: Why Delayed Gratification Doesn’t Work

It’s healthy to have goals, ambitions, and aspirations. It’s part of the human experience to want to evolve and improve. The challenge that can happen with goal-setting is that we often ascribe the rewards from such efforts until after it is fully achieved. 

I want to explore this topic today in the context of the Happy When framing. What this refers to is the inner dialogue of attributing large, positive changes to a future event or goal – like, “I’ll be happy when I get this promotion, find my soulmate, make this amount of money, or see this specific number on the scale, etc.”

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that deferring your access to and enjoyment of happiness is one sure way to dilute the very essence of it. Happiness gets to be a yes-and; it can be present today and be amplified with future actions and enjoyment.  

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy,” says the spiritual leader Dalai Lama. 

That sounds easy, right? 

Mm, it’s a great guide as a general philosophy, but let’s dig in more to see how we behave in the pursuit of that happiness. Let’s start with science and the major centers of our brain. 

The base of our brain comprises what scientists call the reptilian brain whose job is to, quite simply, keep us alive. It manages all of our survival instincts like breathing and our reflexes like fight-or-flight responses. 

The mammalian part of the brain is where most of our emotional regulating systems are centered plus our stored memories and ingrained habits. It also includes the Neocortex system where we do our critical thinking, communication, attention, etc. 

There’s a biochemical interaction that happens between these different parts of our brain. Simply put, neuroscience shows that our thinking affects the way we feel and vice versa. 

So how does all this tie into happiness? When we make a decision to assign a positive emotion, like happiness, to a future event (our happy-when milestone), our brain takes that message as a fact and adjusts our emotions accordingly. 

The challenge here is when we either fail to achieve the bar where we’ve placed future happiness or we do achieve it and the abundance isn’t as ample as we expected it to be. We traded a future bet for euphoria and did so by turning down the happiness dial in our here-and-now. And there’s also the ever-present everyone-else barometer thanks to social media that skews our model of what’s even realistic. 

When we’re always looking across the fence at everyone else, we’re less aware of what we have versus what we have not. Years ago, I heard the adage that says: What we complain about other people wish for

With this framing, let’s move from science to psychology, and the process of how intentional positive thoughts can change our emotion regulation. 

I want to be clear here, there are many circumstances where a tangible external change leads to real and sustained improvement in happiness levels, such as the case with dramatic wealth increase or stability following food, housing, or employment insecurity. In these cases, happiness has a very different introduction to our brain because of the unexpected nature or our previous circumstances. 

The Happy When affect is more common for the intrinsic baseline that we control ourselves. In our earnestness for self-improvement and satisfaction, we can start moving the finish line – especially when we get closer to it and we aren’t feeling the increase in happiness that we were expecting. 

Social psychology calls this affective forecasting – that’s affective that starts with an ‘a.’ This refers to how we often overestimate our future positive feelings. That is certainly true of the big Happy When’s we tell ourselves but can also show up in our procrastination excuses. Have you ever heard yourself saying “I’ll finish this email in the morning when I’m fresh or I’ll go work out after I finish this next episode.” 

Or we keep trying to upgrade something to find an additional or elevated happiness high. Think of this as “retail therapy” where someone is seeking out new, better, or more. In psychology, the Happy When is part of the anticipation of the item (such as waiting for the Amazon box to arrive) or the thrill of carrying bags out of a store with your new purchase. 

And businesses-they make big bets on this to encourage the idea that you’ll be happier when…you buy their particular product. It’s marketing hiding in psychology. In the moment of the ping of the purchase, our brains do in fact reward us. We get a boost of dopamine, that happiness hormone. And sometimes this matches nicely to the longer-term happiness effect of when we enjoy the object or experience. 

For me, I enjoy looking forward to a meal or travel almost as much as the experience itself. Bonus happy vibes. Other times, we may feel a letdown after the initial rush when we decide to buy or do something. Or we follow that sensation with the quest for the next best like those who are always getting the latest technology, fashion, or hopping to the vacation hotspot. 

My partner is always on the search for the perfect headset. He probably has 20 pairs at this point. It’s part pursuit of perfection and part what he calls his “shiny object syndrome.” At this point, it’s starting to be a not-quite-happy-when pile. 

And it’s not just for physical things. I was talking to a family friend recently. He finished a full marathon at Disney World earlier this year. This had long been his goal to do before he turned 40. He trained for months and months and celebrated his accomplishment in grand Disney style. 

A month later, he admitted he was feeling a little low now that the race is over. “I might sign up for another race of some sort to have something to focus on,” he said. And that makes total sense. Even when you achieve the Happy When affect, it’s natural to have the what-next feeling. 

I’ve run three half marathons myself several years ago and there are times I feel a burst of pride around that and other times when I start thinking, well, what have you done lately? That’s not my brain’s fault; it’s simply stuck listening to the soundtrack of my own internal dialogue. 

So how can we bring more happy moments into the here-and-now? 

By savoring some of our daily ‘joy snacks,” says neuroscientist turned journalist Richard Sima. These include the first sip of your favorite beverage in the morning, the feel of sunshine as you walk the dog, or the belly laugh from a shared joke. By savoring even small bites of bliss, he says, you can transform an otherwise mundane moment into something joyful. Those moments, in turn, elevate the happy hormones from your brain to your body and make mini memories of the here-and-now. 

Beyond the daily efforts, it’s also important to mark the miles on the longer journeys. When there is a goal where you’re expecting a Happy When, work backwards and find ways to acknowledge the smaller joys in the journey itself. This savoring helps with motivation and momentum – plus it adds to the memory bank in the brain. So when you do get to the finish line, you have a trail of cognitive confetti along the way. 

In summary, it’s great to have goals and enjoy the happies that come from the big wins. The bonus is enjoying some joy snacks along the journey. 

Here’s to happy days ahead and finding ways in the days to take good care. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.