Then What?

When we’re making plans and setting goals, in some cases the desirability of the outcome will be assumed, our only real question being how to accomplish it.

That reflex isn’t always ideal, though, as many of our efforts—our hard fought and depleting victories—orient us toward outcomes that sound wonderful in the abstract, but which won’t actually serve us and may in fact hinder or harm us, in practice.

Rather than assuming a nice new phone or snazzy shoes will inevitably lead to happiness, then, we might ask ourselves what happens next, post-acquisition.

I buy this new smartphone—then what?

What does it do for me? What does my future with this possessions look like versus a world in which I don’t have it?

Through what mechanism do I become happier? When I imagine myself holding that new device, tapping the screen, and clicking the little volume buttons what aspect of using it adds value and fulfillment to my life?

In some cases the improvement in functionality or even the look and feel of the device will indeed provide us with a productivity upgrade (in terms of work or keeping in touch with friends or fiddling with games on the train) or a long-lasting thrill of aesthetic pleasure derived from wielding a well-made piece of hardware.

Often, though, we’re prodded to purchase not for any specific reason but because marketing messages and cultural signifiers (celebrities and other attractive people using this specific device) have subtly suggested to us that this is the phone to have because it will imbue us with something of the same ineffable amazingness that those more-visible possessors of the same item exude.

The same can be true of life goals like getting a promotion, having a baby, or taking an overseas vacation.

I get that promotion—then what?

I make more money, probably, but do I like the work I’m now performing? Do I like the additional responsibility? Is this something I truly desire for explicable reasons, or is this something that I know I’m supposed to want, that represents a next-step of some kind, but which, if made manifest, I might regret because of previously unacknowledged tradeoffs?

Maybe I have a baby, but am I doing it because I want to have a child, a larger family, or am I doing it out of some sense of responsibility? Am I doing it because I want to feel loved? Am I doing it because that’s just something a person does at a certain age once a sequence of other items have been checked off the Adulting 101 to-do list?

A vacation almost always sounds great, but is that trip to that place at that time focused on activities what will really help us relax and decompress? Or are we actually aiming to reconnect with our partner, who we’ll be traveling with but maybe not in a context that allows for connection? Or maybe we’re keen to experience something of the local culture, but we’re staying at a resort, which could limit our opportunities in that regard?

Asking ourselves what that vacation will look like and why can help us get more out of it and help us avoid the trap of going on a not-ideal-for-us trip that we opt for not because it seems like something we’d benefit from, but because it’s the most pervasive generic example of such a thing.

All goals and investments and endeavors are potentially wonderful and valuable, but asking ourselves about specific outcomes and getting really into the nitty-gritty, concrete details beforehand can help us better calibrate our compasses so we arrive precisely where we’d like to be (rather than with a generic, one-size-fits-none version of the thing or activity in question) and can deviate from inherited or thoughtless pursuits before they consume too much of our time, energy, or resources.

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