For seven years Renee and her husband Philip promised themselves they would go on a Caribbean cruise once their two children were grown-up and at university or working. In the meantime, they didn’t have many holidays away together. Their son and daughter went on school trips overseas and the family had occasional weekends away, staying with relatives, but they never had big summer holidays abroad.
‘The whole time I had my sights fixed on the cruise Phil and I were going to go on,’ recalls Renee, now 53. ‘I imagined myself dressing up for dinner, going to shows with Phil and on romantic walks on beaches where we docked. It was always there, on my mental horizon, as a reminder that one day in the future, I’d be relaxed and happy; my life would be smoother and less frazzled and we’d recapture the romance we had when we first met, before the children.’
But when the time came and the kids started university, Phil and Renee put off booking the trip for two years. ‘And when we sat down to plan it, we had to be honest with each other. We couldn’t imagine just the two of us away at sea for so long; we realised we might feel lonely and probably a bit claustrophobic.’
The retired school teacher says she felt it was a bit too late for a cruise. ‘But a few weeks after we’d decided to scrap our plans for it, a part of me regretted that I hadn’t done more travelling when we were younger. That was a sad realisation because I can’t ever get that time back.’
According to experts, Renee is a victim of when/then syndrome, a type of thinking that bases our happiness in the future. Also, we often focus so far ahead that we forget that by the time we get there, our dreams or circumstances may have changed.
Dubai-based life coach Adam Zargar (www.UAEcoaching.com) explains: ‘This when/then thinking puts a limit on our happiness by saying: “I can’t be happy now. My happiness is conditional upon something else happening in the future and I will only be happy when these conditions are fulfilled.”
‘An overweight person for example will say: “When I get fit, then I’ll start playing football”, and the busy mum promises herself: “When the kids start school, then I’ll go to the gym”. A coach could believe: “When I’ve built up my practice, then I’ll write a book”.’
But Renee, and the people in the examples Adam quoted, aren’t alone. According to UK life coach Arvind Devalia, 99 per cent of us experience when/then thinking, and some of us use it every day.
Arvind, author of Get The Life You Love (Nirvana Publishing), says: ‘I sometimes call it the “one day, some day syndrome” because it’s so vague. We put things away for the future, believing that one day everything will work out right, or we’ll have everything we want and that’s when we’ll be happy.
‘But what we’re actually doing is postponing our happiness and investing in a future that may not happen – none of us know how long we have in this world or what’s around the corner. We’re creating an illusion and putting things on hold to such a degree that we’re missing out on huge chunks of our lives in the here and now.’
And there’s the irony with when/then thinking. Renee put her cruise off for so long, she went off the idea of life on the high seas, and her regrets have haunted her ever since. The size 18 woman who promises herself she’ll go to the gym once her kids start school would actually feel better about herself if she started working out now and started losing weight, whatever her size.
The life coach who’s waiting until she’s built up her practice before she writes a book might well attract new clients if she organised a regular writing schedule and became a published author.
‘It’s back-to-front thinking,’ explains Arvind. ‘These when/then thinkers are making the destination the important thing, while really it’s the journey that matters. When you get down to a size 10, it’s the eating sensibly and the exercise classes that got you to that size that are important, not the number on your clothes’ labels. It’s important to look back at your journey and see how far you’ve come.
‘Take the example of a woman who says that when she has a boyfriend, she’ll go out more. If she went out, the probability of her meeting someone suitable will be high, at least it’ll be higher than what it would be if she were to stay at home every night, waiting for someone to come by.
‘If, for example, she wanted a future partner who loved doing marathons, then if she joined a running club, she might well meet her ideal man. Even if she didn’t, at the very least she’d be making new friends and getting fitter, which would make her happier and probably more attractive.’
Another thing to remember, say experts, is that happiness isn’t about getting what we want. True happiness is being content with what we have now, whether that’s healthy children, a cat we adore or a home in a nice part of town. And to reach this stage of contentment, we must practise gratitude because it focuses us on what we have, rather than what we think we want.
‘It’s great to have dreams but we must remember to appreciate all the good things in our lives now,’ says Arvind. ‘Start a gratitude jar. Write down all the good things that happen to you on separate slips of paper, and put them in a jar. At the end of the year open the jar and see just what amazing things have happened in your life in the 12 months that just passed by!
‘Creating a bucket list reminds us not to take it for granted that we have years left ahead of us, so if you’ve always wanted to watch the tennis at Wimbledon, see the Taj Mahal, or enter a literary competition or fly a plane, write it down. Then take your list and make some of your dreams into goals. Plan what needs doing to get you there and take action – start the savings plan, organise a writing schedule, and look up flights to London or India.’
Arvind suggests that we also do our research to help us get some clarity about our when/then plans.
‘If your dreams have been based on something else happening, such as children leaving home, talk to parents with kids older than yours, and find out what life is like when the kids leave for university,’ says Arvind. ‘It may be a different experience to what you imagine, especially if they don’t leave home, like many students these days!
‘If you want to attract a new partner, get it clear in your mind what your new love will be like, and what sharing your life will be like. You may decide that you want a partner but you don’t want a couch potato; you’d prefer someone sporty and proactive. Then take action. Join a rock-climbing club, or go hiking.’
Adam Zargar concurs that springing into action is the best way forward. ‘If you’re waiting for your child to start nursery before thinking about what courses you could do, you’re using your child as an excuse for not getting back on the career path after a few years out,’ he says. ‘Go through your career options and look up what courses might be available before your child starts nursery – you may have to sign up early for them.
‘If you’re putting off writing a book until you have a long period of free time or a brilliant idea for a novel, you may never get that time or the right idea. Have a pen and paper by your bed and brainstorm ideas every night or every morning. Periodically look back at these notes and review them. That way, you are moving forward.’
For Arvind’s free webinar on the Ultimate Life Transformation System, go to ThinkBigCoaching.com/webinar.