As I make my New Year’s resolutions and begin putting them into practice, I’m reflecting on a post I wrote a few months back titled, “4 unconventional ways to be happier.” In that post I sought to point out ways of approaching happiness that go against popular messages we receive from our peers—or from media and movies and myths. One piece of advice I wrote was this:
“Focus on experiences, not accomplishments."
What did I mean by that? Here’s how I explained it:
"Whenever you pursue a goal, you’re not actually pursuing the goal itself. You’re pursuing the experience of reaching that goal. You want to experience the fanfare, the pats on the back, the smiling faces, and the confetti all around you as you cross that finish line.
But sometimes we get so caught up in the pursuit of that finish line, that we forget about the serenity of the race.
Instead of asking yourself, what do I want to accomplish next? Ask yourself, what experiences can I have that will add richness, vitality, and wisdom to my life?”
By saying, “focus on experiences, not accomplishments,” I was attempting to redirect your attention to the emotional rather than the physical—the inner embracing rather than the getting. And to the process rather than the ends.
Now, New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on the getting—on seeing yourself happier at some undetermined future point, instead of embracing the pleasures and challenges of experience for its own sake. There are, of course, both qualitative and quantitative goals, and a New Year’s resolution can take the form of either—”I want to be healthier,” (qualitative) or “I want to lose ten pounds,” (quantitative)—but I would argue that the two forms come from the same impulse for change. In a way, New Year’s resolutions seem almost incompatible with accepting yourself the way you are.
On the other hand, we need goals, and the attendant effort required to reach them. Goals give us focus.
But again, as much I’d like to believe that goals are the epicenter of life—that all I need are as many medals, tokens, and pats on the back as possible to be happy—I know that’s an unwise way to live.
So how do I pursue accomplishments wisely? How do I shift my focus to experiences, instead of just grasping at corporeal goals?
In other words, how do I want things without really wanting them?
1. Find gratitude first
There is a blogger named Leo Babauta who writes a blog called Zen Habits, and I highly recommend it. In a recent post titled, “A Healthy Way to Aspire to a Better Life,” he suggests letting your resolutions arise from a place of gratitude and peace (positivity), rather than from a kind of self-hatred (negativity).
He tells the story of a friend who is fed up with his life and deeply dissatisfied. Babuata asks him what he would like to change about his life, and his friend says he would like to “find work he is passionate about and friends who care about him.” Worthy goals, Babauta acknowledges, but suggests that he first find gratitude for what he already has in life because comparing his current life to an ideal future life is exactly what’s making him unhappy. His friend agrees, but wonders, Does that mean I shouldn’t aspire to change?
“No, I’m not suggesting you give up your ambitions and aspirations. It’s only difficult when we attach too tightly to them, and then we become unhappy with the present.
What I’m suggesting is a loosening of attachment to these ideals, a turning to the present to appreciate it and get to know what’s in front of us better. Once you do this, and accept what’s in front of you, you reach a place of peace.
Here’s the key: from this place of peace, you can then take action towards your aspirations … you can find your passionate work, not because you’re dissatisfied with your current life, but from a place of acceptance with your current life and a desire to do something good for yourself.”
The difference between the dissatisfied and the peaceful starting points is subtle, but seems to be of great consequence. The question is whether you want your launching pad into a new life to be one of chaos, or one of balance.
2. Accept the paradox
In his seminal book on modern spirituality, Waking Up, author Sam Harris explains the paradox that faces us as denizens of the world who want to both accept ourselves as we are and strive to improve—our life, our lot, our attitudes—at the same time. He points out, for example, that in order to get better at anything, we must strive to learn to be better—to get an education, to get a better job, to be healthier. But at the same time, meditation requires total acceptance of what already is, and mindfulness has been defined as “noticing the present moment non-judgementally”—two attitudes that seem to contradict the impulse to get “better” in the future.
“The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present as we strive to change ourselves.”
Learning to live with this paradox, this tension, and dance with it, is one key to a wise life.
3. Find a balance
A life without goals is impossible; just living as a human being in the world you will naturally develop desires to change yourself or your surroundings. But a life in which you never fully arrive is one of madness. It is one in which you are constantly running and ruminating—to the sacrifice of the present and bafflement of those you love.
Looking into the mirror each morning, we have a choice: Be an anxious over-achiever, be a passive observer, or find a middle way somewhere in between.