Chasing Dreams \\ the promissory note of ‘Happiness’ & the arrival fallacy

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Chasing Dreams is a multi-part series chronicling my thoughts, dreams & changing ideals over the years (since 2018), including burnout, quitting the rat race, migration and trying to find my path in life

This has been sitting in my drafts for the past 2 years, an unfinished smattering of thoughts, but a conversation I recently had with my closest friend inspired and reminded me to finish writing this post.

Back in mid-2018, I was seated in a Psychiatry residency talk when I heard a slightly melancholic & jaded junior resident say that we’re always lying to ourselves that we’ll finally be happy, and we’ll finally feel contented once we achieve a certain goal, but that it’ll never actually happen because we treat our happiness as a promissory note.

promissory note
prɒmɪsəri ˌnəʊt/ noun

1. a signed document containing a written promise to pay a stated sum to a specified person or the bearer at a specified date or on demand.

It set off a cacophony of alarm bells in my head when I realised how painfully accurate that description was, and how much I related to it. It’s taken me 2.5 years – mainly because of procrastination – but also because I’ve spent time trying to recalibrate how I viewed happiness.

my relationship with happiness & unhappiness

I honestly never thought a single line could make me feel so much, but it was a much-needed impetus I needed to reevaluate my thoughts about happiness, success and what I value in life, especially as I began the journey to ‘adulthood’.

I spent a lot of time thinking about it, especially in mid-2018 when I was starting my 3rd year in med school. I was struggling to reconcile my future career – which I’m bonded to for 11 years, until 2027 – with my extremely contrasting passion in more creative fields, while simultaneously suffering from a period of poor mental health/’situational depression’ from working with a challenging colleague for a prolonged time period (read about it here). Every day felt like distilled misery (thank god it only lasted for 3 months; it felt far longer than that…). Some part of me honestly believed that I would be sad forever, and would not know ‘true happiness™’ until I was doing anything else/was anywhere else except at my current place in life.

Back in 2018, I foolishly thought that by writing a promissory note to my future self (that I would be happy after med school was over), my present self would magically be able to stay strong and survive the demands, exhaustion (both physical and mental) and commitment of my current career and the situation I was in at that time. If I had continued to hold onto that mindset, I would not have survived (and enjoyed) my 3rd year of med school.

short-term happiness

The fact is that it’s too easy to feel suffocated by your own self-pity and misery when you’re in a less-than-ideal place in life, and you’ll soon get sucked into that all-too-familiar downward spiral, no matter how many promissory notes you write.

As dumb as it sounds, what kept me afloat back then was my mantra of “fake it till you make it”. I would start off each morning in M3/my 3rd year with a heavy feeling in my gut, but I’d still drag myself out of bed and go about the rest of the workday trying to be as strong as I could, even plastering a fake smile on my face because it’s been suggested that it could help release dopamine – the ‘happiness’ chemical. Eventually, fake smiles or not, it worked.

Thinking about my long-term plans left me feeling anxious and unhappy, so I forced myself to stop overthinking and just focus on making the best of my current situation, even if it’s far from my dreams/how I envision my future to be. You can’t predict the future (who knows when you’ll die?), so there’s no use being overly anxious about it or letting it ruin your mood in the present.

I know a lot of crappy motivational posters say that you should ‘live in the moment‘ and ‘live each day like there’s no tomorrow‘, and it’s quite cringe-inducing when typed out, but after spending the past 1.5 years making conscious efforts to find small pockets of joy & count blessings in my daily life, I’ve come to realise that living in the moment is a fairly good concept to apply when seeking out happiness.

long-term happiness

Too many times, we write promissory notes for various things in our lives, and we tend to procrastinate, especially when it comes to things we deem less important, or when doing the ‘thing’ doesn’t yield tangible results. Or we tell ourselves that happiness is a reward that we’re only entitled to at a certain point in life, once we’ve achieved X amount of success, but no, that’s just a lie, aptly termed by psychologists as an arrival fallacy.

I’ve heard friends say things like “I’ll work from 9am-12 midnight daily and earn a lot of money now, so that I’ll be able to quit and be happier in 5 years’ time,” or “It’s tough now, but eventually I’ll make it and everything will get better.” But happiness isn’t a pot of gold that you can hope to find at the end of a rainbow, or the hallowed promised land that lies at the end of all your sufferings and unhappiness.

We keep telling ourselves that it’ll get better someday, as long as we keep trudging down the same path that we’re currently set on, but surely life is meant to be more than just an endless marathon towards an indeterminate endpoint (…death?).

don’t procrastinate on your happiness

Procrastination on daily tasks is a small thing, but procrastinating or delaying your own happiness is tragic. All our ‘maybe later‘s, ‘not today‘s, ‘someday‘s will eventually snowball into a massive laundry list of things that we wanted to do but never had enough time for. And snowballs of unfulfilled dreams naturally lead to regret.

Regret is the worst thing, all the wasted time, all the missed opportunities. I’m extolling the benefits of YOLO/you only live once, not in the way that you take risks with your life or safety, but rather in that you live life boldly and seize opportunities when they come your way.

Nowadays when I make decisions, I ask myself: If I’m going to die in a year, which life path would I choose and how would I live my daily life differently? Asking myself this question in the pursuit of happiness had helped me feel more at peace than ever, because I’ve crossed off a bunch of things on my bucket list that I was always afraid of trying (like setting up my own jewellery business for fun, dancing, etc.), and I know that even if I were to die within a year, I wouldn’t have as many regrets or the feeling that I wasted my time on earth.

I guess I’ve found my own little temporary pocket of happiness in this big scary world, and I hope you do too. 🙂

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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, musings, doctoring), or check out my most read series below:

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