If you want to know why you're not happy, it could be for a multitude of reasons that can be addressed.
Maybe you haven't met your soul mate, received that dream job or taken that two-week European vacation.
As soon as you get your spouse, job or trip, all will be right in the world. Your problems will disappear and little cartoon rainbows of joy will trail behind you everywhere you go.
When it's put like that, of course, the whole scenario sounds ridiculous. But the truth is most of us pull a variation on this theme every day. It doesn't have to be as large as a spouse or a new home. Sometimes it's a question of focusing on an end result, like finishing a school semester, rather than enjoying the journey.
No matter how you frame it, we're awfully good at delaying our own happiness. So, if we know it's harmful to our emotional wellbeing, why do we insist on doing it?
"We delay our happiness because we don't realize that we have control over our lives," says Dr. Flora M. Brown, a positive psychology author and researcher.
"We have wrongly grown up to believe that there is something external out there, other people, situations . . . And of course that's a never-ending road to unhappiness because there will always be something else out in front of us that we're seeking."
Part of the problem stems from our expectations. Almost every social system we have in place — from education to advertising — encourages us to "reach for the stars" or project our happiness to a later date when we've accomplished what society sets out, whether it's marriage, kids, material wealth, or a new sports car.
"We are happy for two minutes (after getting a new item). I don't know if that's even called happiness because I think of happiness as something deeper and more enduring," says Brown. "Yeah, there's this rush, there's this high, and then we get used to these things; we take them for granted, we no longer get joy from them — and it happens pretty fast."
The trick, she says, is to focus on the here and now to change your perspective so that you value the little, everyday joys rather than waiting for the highs of a future intangible.
Here are five ways to stop delaying your happiness and start smiling right now:
Take off your blinders
You know that older couple with the swimming pool, three cars, and designer clothes? They're probably too busy remembering the good old days to really enjoy it.
"When you ask long-time married couples what stands out in their lives, many times it's the hard times, the struggles because they enjoyed living in that one room, figuring out how they were to make it and having to be very creative," says Brown. "If we just look to the destination, it would be like driving cross-country with blindfolds on. You miss all the beautiful scenery along the way."
Be a little selfish
As children, we have no problem expressing what we want. Somewhere along the path to adulthood, however, we learn to put aside our needs and become people pleasers. While stomping your foot and throwing a tantrum won't win you any fans, learning to step into your power and speak up for what you want can yield immediate happiness.
"Sure, you can get along in any job, or you can work yourself into a corner where you are no longer enjoying a night because you're doing what everybody else wants, but learning to choose what you want to say yes to means you're going to say no to other things. And it's not a mean or selfish thing: your happiness depends on it," says Brown.
Humans are social animals for a reason. We thrive on love and interpersonal connections. For that reason, we tend to feed off the energy of those around us. So if we're surrounded by toxic or negative people, we can't help but be affected. The same is true in reverse.
"There is some research that shows that happiness is contagious," Brown says. "Learning to cultivate new relationships around people who are happy and people who are going after something in life can help us be happier in the now because we have an example of it in our midst."
Whatever you have now may not be everything you've ever wanted, but chances are it's still pretty good. "Expressing gratitude, being grateful for all we have, and showing compassion towards people — these all have enormous health benefits." Don't lose sight of what you've already achieved while you're focused on the next biggest thing.
"Learn to be still, to meditate, pray, whatever you want to call it: just be silent," Brown advises. "We have so much noise in our culture that we can't even hear ourselves think. These are all things we have the power to do, to make a commitment if we care about our happiness."
These five simple steps can lead to an instant jolt of joy, no gadgets, price tags or assembly required. So, what on earth are you waiting for?