(3 minute read)
One of my clients told me that his excessive drinking was like borrowing happiness from tomorrow. “I will have a couple of extra drinks at a party so I can enjoy myself more, or if I’m alone at home put away half a bottle of wine so I don’t feel so sad. I get a couple of hours where I feel better, but then the next day I feel lousy for 12 hours. I get three hours of feeling good today, but I have to pay it back tomorrow with 12 hours of feeling bad. It’s a pretty high rate of interest on that loan.”
It’s no surprise that so much alcohol made my client feel terrible the next day. Aside from the hangover, alcohol depresses the synaptic activity of the brain in a way that made him more likely to feel depressed. Also, because of the hangover, he did less on the day following the drinking. Struggling at work, making mistakes, working more slowly, or just staying in bed and sleeping are unlikely to make anyone feel great about their life.
Insight gave my client the opportunity to change this dynamic. Recognizing what he was doing, thinking about the future, enabled him to put his future needs ahead of his current needs, and not to borrow happiness from tomorrow. Insight alone, however, isn’t enough. There are many people who know exactly what damage they’re doing to their lives, and still can’t stop themselves.
There are three things that determine a person’s ability to resist borrowing happiness.
How much happiness we’re able to borrow. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson took his first drink in his early 20’s and describes himself as having found the “elixir of life”. No longer socially awkward and unhappy at parties, he found himself the center of attention, attractive to women and able to enjoy himself enormously. No wonder he became an alcoholic: without alcohol he was miserable, and with a few drinks inside of him he was on top of the world. That was clearly an irresistible temptation for him — at least for many years.
How much interest we have to pay on our happiness debt. If my client felt miserable for a week after drinking rather than just a day, he might have decided the exchange wasn’t worth it. The knowledge that the debt will have to be repaid, and that it will be a very painful process, helps to discourage the borrowing in the first place.
How much we’re able to project ourselves into the future. Humans have the ability to plan for the future, but we don’t always use it. If we see our future self as someone different (how many young people say “I can’t imagine being 70” or “I’ll never reach that age, I’m sure I’ll die before then”) it’s very tempting to borrow from the future. The ability to imagine clearly how bad we’ll feel tomorrow can hold us back from those extra drinks tonight.
Although this situation involves alcohol, the truth is that much of life is about how much we borrow happiness from the future. We are driven to reduce our present pain and increase our present happiness, but we do so at the cost of future regret. We spend happily today and regret tomorrow when the credit card bill arrives. We overeat (and perhaps purge) today to reduce our pain, and feel even more shame tomorrow — and health effects the day after. We spend hours on social media rather than study, do chores or work, and the next day we curse our inefficiency.
The biggest problem with borrowing happiness from tomorrow is that it results in a tomorrow that is bereft of happiness. If that borrowed happiness came through alcohol, our tomorrow is usually sad, sick and lonely. If it came from overeating or overspending, our tomorrow is full of shame. If it came from time wasted on social media, our tomorrow is full of self criticism and the pressure of things not done. Whatever our method of borrowing happiness, we’ve made our tomorrow worse. And when that tomorrow becomes today, the misery we are stewing in makes us desperately want to be happier. And so we borrow happiness again, this time from the new tomorrow, in an ongoing vicious cycle.
This is what is often at the root of our self defeating and destructive behavior. Whatever made us borrow happiness from tomorrow in the first place can be long forgotten, but the cycle of borrowing continues, feeding on itself day after day, deepening the unhappiness and driving our need to borrow from tomorrow yet again.
Therapy can certainly help to break the cycle. But often, simple self awareness is enough to change our behavior. Keeping a record of how much we drink, or how many hours we spend on social media, or when and how much we smoke, ate or spent, is often enough to change things.