When people consider how they want their lives to be, they often think in terms of reaching specific milestones. They set goals like earning a certain amount of money, achieving a certain level of success at work, having a certain group of close friends, falling in love, getting married, having a spectacular wedding, having children, and being thought of as a good person. But milestones like these don’t necessarily determine how much people enjoy their lives, how high their mood is on a regular basis, or even how fulfilled they feel day-to-day.
If one of your goals in life is to run a triathlon, and it is the day before the big race, you probably will feel excited. The day after the race is over, you will likely feel proud with a highly elevated mood. Months, and perhaps even years later, you will still probably feel good when you reflect on the fact that you completed the race. And yet, the fact that you ran that triathlon is very unlikely to impact your day-to-day mood long after the event. Most of us spend only a small percentage of our time reflecting on past memories and achievements, and even in moments of reflection the triathlon would represent just one of a great many possible things to reflect on. If you are lucky, the triathlon experience might have positive effects on your personality, increasing your confidence or perseverance, and give you a sense of accomplishment. All of these things are great. But you should also not expect the fact that you ran one two years ago to be determining how you feel on a day-to-day basis today, or to be making up for a life that currently lacks fulfillment. In other words, accomplishments are great, and you should strive for them. But you also shouldn’t expect them to benefit you that much on your typical days. But typical days are the content of most of your existence. Typical days matter most in terms of your average happiness because they are so abundant.
So in addition to thinking about the things you’d like to accomplish in your life, it can be helpful to also ask yourself:
- What would my ideal, ordinary week be like?
Ideal, in the sense that it would reflect a life that would make you happy (both helping you maintain a significantly positive average mood, keeping you feeling fulfilled, and including meaningful connections). Ordinary, in the sense that it is the sort of thing that you could actually repeat week after week for years. So base jumping is out, unless you don’t plan on surviving for very long. Eating $200 tasting menus every night is out, unless you plan on making a large sum of money first (and anyway, they would quickly become boring). And going on a roller coaster every week is out, because after six months of that most of the thrill would be gone (unless you are truly a roller coaster aficionado). To construct your ideal ordinary week, it may help to ask yourself questions like:
- What living situation would help keep me in a good mood?
- What activities give me a sense of fulfillment or purpose?
- What excites me that would still excite me if I did it weekly for years?
- What job would fit into this ideal week, providing the income to support this lifestyle while simultaneously adding to my positive mood and good feeling about life?
Don’t think in terms of achieving certain milestones, but rather in terms of how the hours in the week are spent. You can fill in these details about your ideal ordinary week with questions like:
- How much time would you spend watching TV per day? It may not be zero minutes, but your happiness is probably not maximized by watching more than an hour either.
- How much time would you spend reading or learning per day? What would you learn about and how would you go about learning it?
- How much time would you spend socializing? What sorts of people would you socialize with?
- How much time would you spend on hobbies? What might these hobbies be (making sure to choose things that wouldn’t grow boring over the years)?
- How much time would you spend doing altruistic things (keeping in mind that altruism increases both our sense of fulfillment and raises our mood, in addition to its direct benefits on the world)? Who would you be helping in this time?
- How many hours would you spend at work (keeping in mind that this job must support the lifestyle of your ideal week plus give you sufficient savings)? What would you want your hours spent at work to be like (being realistic about what you could get paid to do)? What sort of tasks would you be doing and what sort of people would you be working with that would be good for you, week to week?
- What would your romantic life be like? How would time with a romantic partner be spent?
Once you have determined what your ideal ordinary week would be like, consider how you can nudge your current life in that direction. What are you doing more of than would be your ideal, and what are you doing less of? Can you cut back on the former and increase the latter?
Milestones are important and worthwhile. But rather than thinking just in terms of what milestones you want to achieve in your life, think also about what you want your daily existence to consist of. Based on what you know about yourself, think about how you can fill your hours so that you regularly have a positive mood and a feeling of real satisfaction. Figure out what your ideal ordinary week would be like, and then ask yourself what you can change today to make your life more like that ideal.
Influences: Kenneth Chen (A Practical Guide to Defining Your Supergoals)