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Have you ever wondered about the nature of happiness? Is it a result of years of toil and hard work, a reward to be savored after achieving long-term goals, or something to be seized in the present moment, a fleeting feeling to be enjoyed without delay? This intriguing question was recently addressed in a groundbreaking study by psychologist Lora Park from the University at Buffalo. The study offers a fresh perspective on how our beliefs about happiness can shape our behavior and overall well-being.

Understanding the Two Perspectives of Happiness

The study identifies two distinct approaches toward happiness. Some view happiness as an investment, like putting money into a savings account. They believe in 'delaying happiness', working hard, and making sacrifices now in anticipation of a happier future. This perspective sees happiness as a cumulative resource that grows over time.

Conversely, others see happiness as fleeting and transient, akin to investing money in the stock market, where its value fluctuates daily. People with this perspective believe in 'living in the moment' and seizing opportunities to feel happy now rather than deferring it to an uncertain future.

The Benefits of Delaying Happiness

Delaying happiness, as it turns out, carries its own set of benefits. The study found that those who delay happiness in pursuit of critical long-term goals experience a heightened sense of anticipated happiness and pride upon achieving those goals. This might be akin to the satisfaction of seeing a savings account grow over the years, the fruition of one's hard work and dedication. ​Park led a research team that conducted studies with samples that included college-aged and adult community participants.

They first established a new scale to measure delaying happiness versus living in the moment beliefs and then examined the costs and benefits of endorsing these beliefs about happiness. Results suggest that delaying happiness to pursue critical long-term goals is associated with greater anticipated happiness and pride upon achieving that goal. Still, there is a downside, according to Park. Picture a student who forgoes short-term pleasures, like social outings or hobbies, to focus on preparing for a competitive exam. The joy and pride they feel upon cracking the exam directly result from their decision to delay happiness.

Another example could be a young entrepreneur who invests countless hours into their startup, often sacrificing personal time and immediate pleasures for the sake of their business. Their joy upon seeing their venture succeed and flourish is amplified by the hardships they've endured and the gratification they've delayed. The sense of accomplishment they feel is all the greater for the sacrifices they've made along the way.

Indeed, the pursuit of long-term goals often requires a considerable amount of persistence and focus. Those willing to delay immediate gratification in favor of future happiness are often seen as disciplined, goal-oriented individuals with their eyes set on the prize.

There’s no question that long-term goals often require persistence and focus. People give up a lot in that regard. But there are costs associated with this pursuit, such as passing up on opportunities to seize happiness right now, which can boost positive emotions and feelings of closeness and connection with others,” says Park. Consider an athlete preparing for a significant competition. They might need to follow a strict training regimen and diet, forgoing indulgences like parties or decadent foods. While this path might seem challenging and demanding, the sense of achievement and pride they feel when they perform well in the competition often outweighs the initial sacrifices.

Finally, consider individuals who save and invest money for retirement rather than spending it all on immediate pleasures. While they might miss out on some present luxuries, their financial security and comfort after retirement often validate their decision to delay happiness. Their future happiness, thus, becomes a testament to their past discipline and patience.

The Downsides of Delaying Happiness

While delaying happiness in pursuing long-term goals has merits, it's not without challenges. One of these is the guilt, anxiety, and regret that individuals often feel when they engage in activities that may divert their time or energy from their long-term goals. For instance, a student who decides to take a break from studying for an important exam to watch a movie might experience guilt for not studying, anxiety about the potential impact on their grades, and regret for having 'wasted' their time.

This can extend to more significant decisions as well. An entrepreneur who takes a day off for relaxation might struggle with guilt over not using that time to build their business, anxiety about the work they're not doing, and regret for not utilizing every moment towards achieving their goals. This constant tug-of-war between immediate gratification and long-term goals can add stress and reduce the enjoyment of the present moment.

Moreover, the pursuit of long-term goals, while rewarding, can sometimes come with significant costs. These can include missing out on opportunities to experience happiness in the present moment. For instance, a career-oriented individual might work late hours regularly, missing out on social events, family time, or personal hobbies. Over time, this constant sacrifice of the 'now' for the 'later' can lead to loss and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, someone laser-focused on career advancement might skip vacations or personal downtime. While this might help them advance professionally, it could also lead to burnout and missing out on life's simple pleasures. Ultimately, while delaying happiness can lead to significant long-term rewards, balancing these long-term goals with the need to live and enjoy the present moment is essential.

The Benefits of Living in the Moment

Contrary to the path of delaying happiness, living in the moment brings its suite of benefits. People who adopt this approach tend to engage in more fun and enjoyable activities, even if these activities are not directly linked to their long-term goals. This results in more positive emotions and a greater sense of overall well-being. For instance, someone who loves painting but is focused on a career in finance might take time out of their busy schedule to paint. While not contributing directly to their career, this activity could provide immense joy and satisfaction, boosting their overall mood and happiness.

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Simply joy is where you find it

Another example could be a person who loves to travel. Even though traveling may not directly contribute to their long-term professional or financial goals, the joy, and excitement derived from exploring new places, meeting new people, and experiencing different cultures can significantly enhance their happiness and well-being. The memories and experiences they accumulate during their travels can bring them joy and satisfaction long after the trip.

Consider a scenario where you are nearing a significant milestone, such as graduation. In such situations, it might be beneficial to shift your focus from the future to the present, soak in the celebrations, and enjoy the moment to the fullest without feeling bad about stepping away from your long-term goals. Taking the time to celebrate your accomplishments, enjoy your successes, and share these moments with friends and family can boost your mood and help you feel more connected and fulfilled.

Similarly, consider a person who takes a break from work to spend a day at the beach or a weekend in the mountains. While these activities might not contribute directly to their long-term goals, their relaxation and enjoyment can boost their mood, recharge their energy, and improve their overall well-being. The ability to step away from long-term goals and live in the moment, enjoying life's simple pleasures, can significantly enhance one's happiness and well-being.

The Flexibility of Beliefs About Happiness

Interestingly, Park's research found that our beliefs about happiness, while relatively stable, are not set in stone. They can shift and be influenced by societal messages that place differential value on whether happiness should be considered cumulative or fleeting. This means that our approach to happiness can be flexible and adaptable, depending on our circumstances and the societal cues we receive.

For instance, while society may often admire disciplined and future-focused people, it also values the ability to live in the present and savor the moment. Thus, understanding these different perspectives on happiness can help us strike a balance and maximize our happiness and well-being.

Whether one chooses to delay happiness for the future or live in the moment, both approaches have clear benefits. The key lies in understanding and applying these perspectives appropriately in our lives. Rather than viewing these as mutually exclusive choices, it may be beneficial to see them as complementary strategies that can be employed at different times and situations in life.

By recognizing these beliefs about happiness and acknowledging that these beliefs can be flexible, we can chart a path towards a more fulfilling life, a life that is both goal-oriented and present-focused, a life that balances long-term ambitions with the capacity to seize and enjoy the moment.

So, ask yourself: How do you perceive happiness? Are you more inclined to delay it for the future, or do you prefer to seize it now? Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this. The beauty of happiness lies in its subjectivity, in our ability to shape it according to our needs, desires, and circumstances. So, whatever your approach, embrace it, and remember to make life's journey as joyful as the destination.

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About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. He attended the University of Florida, Southern Technical Institute, and the University of Central Florida with studies in real estate, urban development, finance, architectural engineering, and elementary education. He was a member of the US Marine Corps and The US Army having commanded a field artillery battery in Germany. He worked in real estate finance, construction and development for 25 years before starting in 1996.

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