Stop Leaping and Start Climbing

You know that friend who's completely content with her life? The one who got exactly where she wanted to be, and who now gets to reap all the benefits? Sure, she might still go to work, run errands, and do other non-leisure activities, but she's not trying to change anything. She's got it all figured out, and now she's letting life unfold before her like a magical rainbow.

Unless you live in an old folk's home or a Buddhist temple, my guess is you don't know ANYBODY who fits this description. Most people you know are still striving for perfection, right? Some have been traveling the road to "success" their whole life and stacking their achievements along the way, while others abandoned it long ago, settling for abject mediocrity and chronic sighing. Either way, neither of these types of people has "arrived" at success yet.  They've yet to plant their flag in the promised land.

I too feel like I'm in this "working" phase of life, like the majority of you. Sure, I can imagine a near-perfect life in my future, and it seems completely attainable... but I've got to roll up my sleeves and get to work for another decade or two before I get there. And even though this is how my current state of life feels to me, I know it’s not completely true.

 

Mountain Climbing 101

Imagine that you're a mountain climber, and your life is a mountain. The goal of mountain climbing is simple: just get to the top. But, if you're a true climber, you know this isn't really the only objective. If reaching the summit was the sole purpose of climbing, then I could make a killing by renting a helicopter and ferrying climbers from the base of the mountain to the peak all day long. It would save climbers the time and effort needed for climbing, while still allowing them to enjoy the end goal of the peak.

However, even if I offered FREE helicopter rides, we all know that most climbers would turn me down flat. This is because mountain climbing is more than just reaching the summit; it's called "climbing" for a reason. It's about personally overcoming the mountain: using your skills, learning lessons, improving your technique, exerting energy, and working with others. Not all climbs are easy. In fact, the harder a climb is, the more climbers want to tackle it... ever heard of Everest?

As you've probably figured out by now, this analogy is an elaborate twist on the well-worn cliche: "life isn't about the destination, it's about the journey." Like many cliches, this one's 100% true. But due to its overuse, this expression has become meaningless to most of us, and usually evokes a reaction similar to "sure, whatever"or "yeah, so what?" Now that I've reminded you of it's validity, let me explain one of many ways you can strategically use this knowledge.

 

Leaping Through Life

It's normal to think that life gets better over time. As we grow older, we become "better" at life: we learn more knowledge, we earn more money, we meet more people, we develop more skill, etc. Although I agree with this type of thinking, it can lead to a common mistake that all of us are guilty of making: neglecting the present in favor of a perceived future.  

If we imagine the future as an amazing place that's better than the present, we devote all our time and energy to rushing forward as fast as possible. But if being happy is your end goal, this approach to life will leave you sorely disappointed. Studies show that the major events and circumstances of our lives have practically NO effect on our happiness levels in the long run. So, if you decide to invest your time, money, or energy in an attempt to leap to a new level of happiness, you may want to reconsider your investment.

Someone might attempt such a leap by moving into a much nicer apartment in response to a significant pay bump, or automatically buying an expensive car to replace their junker just because it fits their current budget. I'm not warning against decisions like these because they're financially irresponsible; in this case, the extra cash needed for the nicer apartment or new car was available to be spent. What I am warning is that this type of decision will result in a permanent increase in spending, but only a temporary increase in happiness.

This is due to the concept of the baseline happiness level. We're all born with one, and no matter how our circumstances change, we always return to it over time, even if the Honda Civic in our driveway turns into a BMW overnight. This effect is so powerful, even events like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed will only affect our happiness temporarily. The average paraplegic in this study returned to their happiness baseline within just two months.

 

So What Do We Do?!

With this new understanding, we can choose to generate positive incremental change in our life (climbing), rather than sudden significant change (leaping). This choice will maximize the happiness we reap from our actions.

Whether you upgrade your car to a BMW or a cheaper option, your expectations will adjust to the new car within a couple months. Why not build your way up to the BMW gradually instead, and use your savings to create happiness in other areas of your life? Buying this metaphorical BMW immediately is the equivalent of taking a helicopter ride to the top of the mountain you want to climb. It's an attempt to attain happiness through one large (and expensive) change, instead of appreciating the everyday journey of life.

Don't waste your money on helicopter rides. Don't pour your extra income into shinier versions of the possessions you already own. Don't neglect your social life or your health to race towards that next job promotion; you've had plenty of promotions, and there’s plenty more to come. Instead, step back and appreciate where you are right now.

Now, excuse me while I go find some roses to smell.