How to Balance Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness

balance happiness

Do you find it hard to resist chocolate cake, even though you’re on a diet? Do you end up buying new DVDs or video games, even though you’ve made a careful budget?

There’s nothing wrong with you – and you’re certainly not alone. Most of us find it really difficult to stick with our goals at times. And there’s an understandable reason why.

When you’re attempting change in your life, you often need to forsake some short-term pleasures for the sake of happiness over the longer-term. The various things that appeal to you in the moment – like eating chocolate, buying a DVD, hanging out on Facebook, watching TV – are all ones that will bring you some immediate gratification.

Of course, your long-term goals are more important to you. In fact, they’ll probably bring you much more happiness over time. But in order to reach them, you need to find a way to balance that future happiness with your moment-by-moment impulses.

Short-Term Happiness Isn’t Bad

Some people get the idea that any immediate pleasures are inherently bad. They try hard to resist all snack foods, or they never buy anything for fun, or they cram every moment of the day with work or chores.

There’s nothing at all wrong with enjoying yourself in the moment. In fact, when your long-term goals are on track, you’ll find it much easier to relax and have fun: you won’t have that nagging sense of guilt when you cut yourself a slice of cake or when you head to the cash register with that DVD.

But … Short-Term Happiness Isn’t Everything

On the flip side, of course, you can’t give in to every impulse. If you live too much in the moment, you’ll find things gradually getting worse and worse: you’ll end up in debt, unable to afford necessities, let alone luxuries – or you’ll end up unfit and overweight, struggling to enjoy activities that were once easy for you.

It’s crucial here to find a balance. That might mean that you don’t eat dessert Monday to Friday, but you treat yourself at the weekend. It could mean you give yourself a budget for entertainment spending – say, $50/month – and you use that guilt-free.

Adjusting Your Focus to See the Long-Term

One of the reasons why we struggle to stay committed to big goals is because they seem so far off. It can be tough to turn down a slice of cake when losing 50lbs is a year or two away. It’s difficult to resist a $50 purchase when you’ve got $50,000 of debt: it feels pointless.

Try boosting your commitment to your goal by looking ahead. Write down what it feels like to have met your goal, in the present tense. (I am happy and healthy. My old jeans fit perfectly again…) and read it on a regular basis. Remind yourself what you’re committing to – and remember that small steps will get you there.

Joining Short and Long-Term Happiness

Sometimes, your goals might seem completely opposed to what you want in the short-term. For instance, you might have a goal of losing weight – but you’d also like to enjoy your food.

Look for ways to be happy now and happy tomorrow. That might mean, for instance, trying out some new fruits and vegetables, or creating some diet-friendly but delicious meals. If you’re taking up exercise to get fitter, then experiment with different sports and activities to see what you enjoy most.

If you can, try to centre your life on something that gives you both short-term and long-term happiness. Find a career that means you’ll be where you want to be in a few years time … but that also gives you what you need right now. That might mean following a particular passion, like graphic design or music, or it could mean choosing a career that fits well with the lifestyle you want – perhaps one that allows you the flexibility to pick your kids up from school every day.

Do you have any tips for balancing short-term and long-term happiness? Have you managed to find a career or a lifestyle that helps bring both together for you? Share your tips and ideas with us in the comments below.

Photo by pasotraspaso

18 thoughts on “How to Balance Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness”

  1. I’m still trying to figure out how to be happy really. And I think I’m on my way. For the first time in my life, I really think I’ve found my passion… I’m really not sure where this road will take me… but if I don’t do it now (i.e., quit my job and follow my “passion”),I’ll never know would I?
    This is a wonderful post Ali! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Glori! I hope you have a wonderful journey. For what it’s worth, I’ve never regretted quitting my day job (nearly five years on now..!)

  2. Great blog, thanks Ali. Juggling long-term happiness and short-term pleasures is definitely a struggle for many of us.

    As you mentioned, one doesn’t want to put off happiness for some future date when the goal is achieved.

    Another thing you can do when you are writing about your long-term goal is to describe how you would feel when you have achieved that goal. Ask yourself what kind of person you will be when you have achieved that goal. What different behaviours will you exhibit.

    So if your goal is to loose weight, you may decide you’ll feel full of energy. What kind of person would you be if you were full of energy. Well maybe, instead of spending Saturday afternoons slumped in front of the TV with a bowl of snacks, you might enjoy being outdoors taking the dog to the park.

    See the picture clearly in your mind of being light on foot, breathing in the fresh air, walking the happy, excited dog to the park. Feel that energy… then go do it. You’ll find that once you get going, you’ll enjoy yourself too.

    1. Kirsten, I love that way of thinking — picturing yourself the way you want to be. I often find that acting “as if” helps me quickly get into a better frame of mind.

  3. Martin Hewlett

    I think this is another great post on what is rapidly becoming one of my favourite blog sites.
    For me, one great way to improve the chance of hitting a long term goal is to break it down into manageable chunks. Looking just at the end goal can seem daunting but breaking it down in to monthly, weekly and daily tasks makes it much easier. It also allows you to build up confidence through your successes.
    I also like Kirsten’s comments. To add to hers, I would say try and live the life of the person you want to be. If you want to be an athlete, live how an athlete lives. If you want to be a gardener, do what gardeners do. Act like them, research them, collect pictures – it gets it in your subconscious and change will follow.

    1. Thanks, Martin! Really good point about breaking a goal into chunks … it does make it so much easier. “Write a book”, for instance, is a huge goal, but “write a chapter” is much less daunting…

  4. I’ve found that the proper perspective can transform the question entirely.

    On average, making progress on our goals releases more dopamine than actually achieving them. When we do what you suggest – writing down what it feels like to have met a goal, in the present tense, we’re further increasing our present happiness. There are really only two ways to consistently do something – make it a habit or enjoy it. Enjoying it is so much better :)

    Going back to the question of balance – the pleasure released from making progress of a long-term goal is higher than the hedonic pleasure of giving in and eating that cookie or not exercising. This might sound strange, but I think the situation you’ve posed does not really require balance at all. Proper focus, on the right short-term activities will feed long-term goal achievement, and vice-versa. It will maximize and make sustainable short-term happiness. Long-term happiness is just the sum of short-term happiness.

    I think the question of balance comes into play when we consider something like smoking weed. Which I don’t really recommend…

    1. Amit, I definitely agree with you that we can (and should!) enjoy all the little steps that lead towards our goals … for instance, I genuinely enjoy writing, which ties in well with my goal of being a fairly prolific author. ;-)

      I do think there are some areas where balance will come into play, and where we might want to enjoy something short-term even if it doesn’t have any particular long-term benefits. I wouldn’t recommend smoking weed either, but I do enjoy a glass of wine or two at the weekend, and even when I’m watching my weight, I’ll still have ice-cream or whatever once in a while. I suspect this is something that different people will have very different views on!

  5. Nice one Ali. Our society is so caught up in instant gratification that we are losing our ability to stay with the work it requires to achieve long-term goals. Short-term thinking is fine as long as we don’t indulge to the point that we create negative long-term consequences. I agree that balance is the key. That balance is as unique as each of us. It takes work to figure out how much slack to cut yourself. Understanding your process is well worth that work.

    1. Thanks, Brian! Yes, I think understanding your own process is crucial … some people like to work intensely towards a goal (potentially sacrificing some short-term pleasures on the way) and others prefer a slow-and-steady path.

  6. I find that fun is a great way to keep you on target. Fun doesn’t have to cost a lot or sometimes even anything. Find your inner child and let go and have some real fun.
    Recently i bought some BB guns for the kids at our upcoming Jubliee Party. They have been great fun as me and the hubby ambush each other (If you’ve seen castle you will understand)

    Love Life & Smile

  7. This post is great Ali. I recently quit my day job to go back to school to get a proper education and develop a career I’m proud of. It was quite a transition going from working F/T and earning money to becoming a F/T student and earning not even half now. I had to cut out things from my life that I wanted/had to become focused (my apartment; social life). It was hard. But having the long term goal in the back of my head, and constantly reminding myself this will pay off, and will give me that stability in my life I always wanted. Also thinking about my ex-boss face and thinking to myself ‘I don’t want to be where he’s at when I’m that age!’ gives me motivation. Work hard; play hard. Cheers for a great read.

  8. Recently, I fell in the trap of sacrificing all my short-term comforts such as TV and video games. But sacrifice and willpower never work. Guilt-trips only make you feel worse. So I’m giving myself permission to splurge here and there, and still keeping my commitment to my financial and spiritual growth.

    Television dissociates, numbing emotions but it’s okay from time to time to relax. I’m open to new ways of having fun that aren’t dissociating. Such a timely article, I was thinking the same things that were written here, and then BAM! it shows up when I visit this blog. Thank you for this post.

  9. I’ve come to a point in life where I focus on balance: short term, long term, work, play, productivity, freedom, attitude, love, children, self, God. It’s all a balancing act and with the right attitude and attention on love and non judgment, we can truly be happy. I was a child victim of a cult, but I’ve found a way to escape the dark shadows of my past: forgiveness and writing. I have recently published a book “A Train Called Forgiveness” about my childhood experiences. I also have a blog @ I’m always looking for guests to post on my blog and would be willing to guest post on others’ blogs. Thanks, de.

  10. Awesome blog! This is all very true and it makes sense. Sometimes I even get a little stressed out and I kind of shut down. But, then I remember that I actually want to make something out of myself and kind of like re-focus. But, then again we all need to rest a little bit and just relax!

  11. I’ve had this short term goal of going abroad for 6 months or a year and just having an adventure while finding a job to pay the bills. After graduation, I found a great job with long term prospects and potential in my home town. After only a few months at my great new job, I’m starting to feel regret. Did I sacrifice a dream (living abroad) or simply chose long-term happiness over short- term happiness? Because after a year abroad I would have most likely came back to my home town and tried to find the job that I currently have. I know this job will turn me into the person I’ve always wanted to be and I feel really lucky to have it but I keep on thinking that I missed an opportunity by not leaving for a fun adventure abroad right after college. I feel torn. Help.

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