Wisdom//

How to Avoid the “I’ll Be Happy Only When…” Syndrome

Life's challenges don't have to get in the way of your happiness.

PicsFive/ Shutterstock
PicsFive/ Shutterstock

I remember working very hard for a Silicon Valley start-up. One day I heard the founder/CEO say in exasperation, “I’ll be happy only when we go public!” That was clearly the goal for everyone in the company — having an initial public offering, or IPO, would be a major achievement — and all of us early employees would stand to make millions of dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals and working hard to accomplish them. In fact, engaging with something that gives you purpose is a key element of happiness. But problems begin when we lead our lives under the never-ending assumption that “success,” “happiness,” or “peace” are states of being that can be reached only once we overcome all our current obstacles, after which life is suddenly perfect. Along the way, we act as if this state of contentment cannot be here and now, but rather sometime in the future.

You can call this the “I’ll Be Happy Only When” Syndrome. Here’s what it might look like at various stages in a person’s career:

I’ll be happy only when I get out of high school.

I’ll be happy only when I get good grades on my college admissions exams.

I’ll be happy only when I get into a top university.

I’ll be happy only when I graduate from that top university.

I’ll be happy only when I get a fantastic job after college.

I’ll be happy only when I pay off my student loans.

I’ll be happy only when I get promoted to manager at that great job.

I’ll be happy only when I earn $100,000 per year.

I’ll be happy only when I get promoted to director at that job.

I’ll be happy only when I switch companies and leave that job I hate.

I’ll be happy only when I earn $200,000 per year.

I’ll be happy only when I save $1,000,000 for my retirement.

I’ll be happy only when I retire.

I’ll be happy only when I figure out what hobbies I should have in my retirement.

[To learn “What Cancer Taught Me About Happiness,” check out my TEDx Talk, here.]

In parallel, this syndrome can take many forms in someone’s personal life:

I’ll be happy only when I have a boyfriend/girlfriend in high school.

I’ll be happy only when I have a boyfriend/girlfriend in college.

I’ll be happy only when I lose my virginity. (This could happen at many different stages in one’s life … but only once, as far as I can tell!)

I’ll be happy only when I get engaged.

I’ll be happy only when I get married.

I’ll be happy only when we have our first child.

I’ll be happy only when we have our second child.

I’ll be happy only when our kids get into an outstanding kindergarten/ grade school/high school/college/graduate school/postdoctoral program in astrophysics at Princeton.

I’ll be happy only when all of the kids are out of the house.

I’ll be happy only when I get a divorce.

I’ll be happy only when the child custody issue is resolved.

I’ll be happy only when I get remarried.

I’ll be happy only when I get a divorce again.

I’ll be happy only when I undergo my gender transition.

Those are examples of major life events. But this syndrome can plague our daily lives as well:

I’ll be happy only when tax season is over.

I’ll be happy only when the Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship again.

I’ll be happy only when this out-of-town visitor is gone.

I’ll be happy only when we finalize plans for our upcoming vacation.

I’ll be happy only when we get better marketing materials for our product.

I’ll be happy only when that stupid colleague of mine switches departments.

I’ll be happy only when the stock market goes up.

I’ll be happy only when it stops raining.

You may be waiting a long time.

Instead, you might prefer to think about life this way: 

You’ve had challenges before.

You have challenges now.

You will always have challenges.

Jim McCarthy

So what ever happened to the start-up CEO who exclaimed that they would only be happy “once we go public”? This executive sent the message to everyone in the company that happiness would not be experienced until the IPO. At the time of this writing, that company is still not public. I don’t know whether the CEO has enjoyed the journey during the many years since, but I suspect the answer is “no.”

Don’t be that way.

Enjoy your life journey.

Live each day.

YOUR TURN:

Do you suffer from the “I’ll Be Happy Only When …” Syndrome? Where do you get stuck? How do you overcome it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

This is an excerpt from my new book, Live Each Day: A Surprisingly Simple Guide to Happiness.

  • [email protected] author Chip Conley calls it “an ambitious achievement.”
  • Project Happiness founder Randy Taran says it’s “a wake-up call to living your life to the absolute fullest. This book shows you how.”
  • And venture capitalist Heidi Roizen writes Live Each Day is an action-provoking, life-changing vehicle.”

Get copies for yourself, your clients, or your organization here, now. 

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