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The “If, Then” Trap: How It Keeps You Unhappy and How to Avoid It


“Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” ~Chuang Tzu

Being an empty nester (the kids have grown up and left home), I noticed recently that I have fallen in love with little kids again.

After going through all the kid stages, and surviving them (most notably the teenage years), I took a long kid moratorium. Skiing, mountain biking, traveling, gardening, and reading—all filled to the brim with a commodity I had forgotten about: time just for me.

Now, unexpectedly, they’re back! Exhausting, enchanting, and a source of endless inspiration.

A few doors down to the west I have new neighbors—Parker, her brother, and her parents. Parker hollers my name when I drive by, waves vigorously trying to escape her car seat when her Mom drives by, and marches into my yard like she owns the place.

Full of “What’s that?” and “Why are you doing this?” questions. Needs to show me—no, demands to show me—whatever she has in her hand. Where she got it, what it does, and why it’s so important!

I’ll have to admit I was a little annoyed at this mini-interloper at first. But it didn’t take long before I was helplessly enchanted by whatever kid-spell she was weaving.

Parker is full out in the moment, fun, and crackling with excitement. What I quickly noticed, staring back at me, was how I was not (fun and in the moment).

Even though I subscribe to the practice of being present, it’s often more of an ideal than a practice. Every day there is the “to-do list.” What I need to get done, to keep everything moving, and (in my mind) to keep everything from falling apart.

I plan, scheme and, okay, I worry about whatever is coming up next. Finally, when it’s all over and done with, there is a big sigh of relief. Now I can go on to the next thing. Yet, once I’m on to the next thing the cycle starts all over again!

I’ve recognized that this daily trap can keep me from being truly happy and experiencing the fullness of being in the present moment. It’s what I call the “If, Then Trap.” It’s really a happiness trap.

The “If, Then Trap” goes something like this

If I can just get this finished, then I can relax…

If I were home more, then the kids would be happier….

If I had more money, then we would be happier…

If I exercised more, then I would be happier with myself…

If my son would only apply himself in school, then I’d feel okay…

What’s interesting about the “If, Then Trap” is that it is just a story. It’s a story about what we have decided things mean.

When I practice yoga, mediate, or just hike in the mountains, and quietly align with the present moment, what I notice is that there are no problems. Everything is perfectly okay! What’s extraordinary about this is that nothing has changed.

So why is there a deep sense of contentment during these life-stands-still moments when the external circumstances that keep us caught up in drama remain the same?

Here’s what I think: the mind chatter, the stories we tell ourselves, and what we decide everything means ignites emotions that are perfectly aligned with the story we have been telling ourselves.

It’s a viscous cycle: interpretation, and an emotional response that feeds right back into the story, the story grows and the resulting emotions make us unhappy.

Clearly, in the present moment, happiness just happens. Unhappiness is manufactured. Chuang Tzu was right: Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.

As I finished writing this Parker appeared in my driveway.

“What are you doing???” she hollered.

“Writing about happiness,” I said.

“Why? Happiness is easy!” she yelled, peddling out of sight.
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