I’ll be happy when

by Jack on January 2012

Sometimes I overhear people say things like “I’ll be happy when ” and I feel like shouting at them. But why? Doesn’t that sound like a good sentiment, focusing on things that bring happiness? After all, it’s good to have a dream and hope for the future, something that a person can look forward to. Right?

Well, not exactly. This is actually one of the most toxic things you can say to yourself. So don’t do it.

We tend to spend most of our time in the states of mind that we practice most often. If we operate deliberately in a state of curiosity, after a while we will tend to spontaneously revert to a state of curiosity. Same thing for a state of gratitude, happiness, or excitement. And unfortunately, this is also true of a state of resentment, pessimism, or anger. The mind states that we practice consciously are the mind states that we tend to slip into unconsciously.

But what actually creates these states of mind? One of the strongest and most enduring influences on our typical mind-state is the language that we use in our inner monologue, and the questions we typically ask about ourselves and the world around us.

Because of the powerful influence of our language on our inner state, it’s important to understand what an seemingly innocent phrase like “I’ll be happy when …” has on our typical state of mind.

First, the sentence contains an important presupposition encoded inside it. That’s a complicated way of saying that it is based on assuming something – namely, that I’m not currently happy, and possibly even unable to be currently happy. Why? Because I don’t have that thing – whatever it is – that I’ve decided is a necessary condition for my happiness. If I were already happy, why would I say something like this? Why would I need to point to something in the future that will bring me happiness?

Next, a person who repeatedly uses language like “I’ll be happy when …” is going to train herself to exist in a state of mind of expectation and future orientation. While not an immediately toxic emotion like anger or resentment, this is nevertheless an unhealthy mind-state to abide in for too long. A person misses the beauty and excitement of the present moment when he is seduced by dreams of the future.

Finally, this kind of phrasing is often oriented toward something external, some condition outside the mind and thoughts of the person speaking or thinking the “I’ll be happy when …” phrase. Unfortunately, the condition is almost never under the immediate control of the speaker / thinker – instead, it is often dependent on the behavior of another person or organization, or on some kind of “luck”. Because of this, the speaker has given the power over his own happiness away to an external force.

What kind of language can a person use instead of this? There are three main things to change in order to turn this sentence into something worth saying to yourself.

First, drop the assumption that you’re not currently happy – or relaxed, or experiencing inner peace, or whatever mind-state you want to experience. Is it possible that the only thing standing in the way of you having that state of mind that you want, is the expectation you need something outside yourself to have it?

This could lead to a phrase like “I will allow myself to feel happy”.

Next, change the tense of the verb. Why orient yourself toward the future when you might be able to experience the mind-state you want right now?

This leads to a phrase like “I allow myself to feel happy”.

Finally, it’s useful to emphasize that all our inner states of mind ultimately depend not on the external circumstances of our lives but on the thoughts we think. Focusing on the unconditional nature of our inner experience helps us decouple it from forces outside our own minds, and reclaim power over our own experience of life.

At last, this leads us to a phrase like “I allow myself to feel happy and thankful, now and always, regardless of the circumstances of my life and my situation”.

Some people may react negatively to a sentence like that – “what is this New Age bullshit? Of course, I’m going to get upset if something bad happens in my life”. If you have a reaction like this, do your best to say this phrase to yourself again, without judgment, as best you can. Observe how the reaction changes and transforms.

Allow yourself to explore the possibility that your inner state might not have to depend on your life circumstances. What would it mean for you if you understood, fully and completely, that “I’ll be happy when” is just a lie, a fake story that people tell themselves? What would it mean for you if you understood that “I’ll be happy when…”, is actually the only thing standing in the way of anyone being happy right now?

You can even introduce things that you don’t like about yourself into these kind of sentences – “Even though I {am a fat lazy pig, get angry, am a wimp, have dark moods, etc.}, I deeply and completely accept myself.” [1] Just because you have circumstances in your life situation that you would like to change does not mean that you can’t experience positive states of being, right now. Because you can.

This is the power of what we say to ourselves – the language we use in our inner monologue has the ability to transform our mood, our habitual states of mind, and our overall experience of life. Why not try this out? After all, what do you have to lose but some unpleasant emotions – emotions that you would probably rather not experience anyway?


[1] This example is from Andreas, S. Help with Negative Self-talk, Volume I, Real People Press: Boulder, CO 2009.

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