JENELLE CARTER

Deferred Happiness

Feb 9, 2021 | Newsletter, Writing

This past October my parents left for what turned out to be a month to take care of my grandma. Admittedly, I was looking forward to having the house to myself. There are a number of factors that contribute to why I’m still living at home as I near the age of thirty, but suffice it to say, I’ve been craving independence.

The length of a month was by far the longest I’d ever been on my own. Initially, it was everything I’d hoped for. I had complete freedom and solitude and could enjoy simple pleasures like taking a bath whenever I wanted (our only bathtub is in my parent’s bathroom). I was forced to be completely on my own for all food and groceries and actually enjoyed that aspect of things (no doubt because it was just temporary and thanks to the current pandemic I have a lot of extra time on my hands). I cooked myself proper meals and gained confidence that I could indeed take care of myself if left completely to my own devices.

After about a week and a half of this, however, I was hit with some pretty hard truths. I realized that if this independence were a permanent reality, my life’s issues would not suddenly all disappear and everything else fall perfectly into place. Along with wanting to be independent, I’ve struggled immensely with the need to have a career, or at the very least a career direction. I’d been longing for these two things for such a long time that I was blinded to how much control over my life I had given them. As I tasted true independence for an entire month, I realized that while being on my own would certainly help me in many ways, it wasn’t going to solve all my problems and bring me happiness. A career would be the same way. I’d subconsciously bought into the notion that once I got these two crucial building blocks in place, then I’d be set. Life would be easier, things would make sense, I could finally earn the label of “adult”, and most importantly, I’d be happy. These weren’t things I ever told myself, but over the years, the weight of these two desires kept growing until somewhere along the line they took over.

On November 3, I wrote a note in my phone that simply read, “With all my goals I’ve essentially just been chasing happiness, deferring it to try to achieve it later.”

Deferring happiness.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10-15 years of my life without realizing it. No wonder I’ve struggled so much with not having a career direction; I couldn’t be happy without it! It’s crazy how subconscious beliefs can subtly grow in the background. I’ve never chased riches or status or believed that money or success would equate to happiness, and yet I unknowingly bought into that anyway. While a career and a place of my own are the two big ticket items, this mentality has no doubt crept its way into other areas of my life, big and small.

I felt pretty stupid after realizing all this and seeing how blind I’ve been, but I think a lot of us play this game, deferring happiness and other benefits until certain external conditions or accomplishments have been met. The common ideals of chasing the American dream or climbing the corporate ladder don’t help. School, job, career, car, house, family, retirement, etc. can easily become checkmarks on a to-do list instead of meaningful aspects of our lives. It may not be as big or pervasive in your life, but it’s easy to fall into the “if only” mentality of deferring happiness and healthy choices. If only I can make it through these next two really busy weeks, then I’ll spend more time with my family. If only I can get that promotion, then all my financial problems will be solved. If only I had some more free time, then I could finally start that passion project. If only I had more motivation, then I could take care of my health. If only I can form this one keystone habit, then everything else will fall into place. If only I can find a career and a place of my own, then I would be happy. Our “if only”s are rarely the solutions to our problems.

In a way, I feel like I’ve always just been persevering through life, chasing the next thing but never enjoying the process. I think a lot of that I internalized because of the times when I didn’t get to choose the process. School was a large chunk of my life that I never really liked. It stifled my love of learning and replaced it with checking off boxes to get to the next level that was no more enjoyable than the one before. The jobs I’ve had have been a similarly unenjoyable means to an end. Still, there’s a lot more I could have done to appreciate things along the way and to learn what it means to be content.

I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me in undoing these defaults, but these hard truths have been an eye-opening step in the right direction.

What am I working toward? What am I doing it all for? If I can’t learn to be happy with where I’m at right now, no external circumstance is going to change that down the road. I will never arrive at happiness by checking things off a list or climbing the ladder to success. If I can’t be happy right now, I never will be.

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