Do not dwell on the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.
Are you tired of people suggesting you “live in the moment”, “be present”, or “stop to smell the roses”?
I mean, what’s wrong with examining the past or looking toward the future? Don’t you need to do these things if you’re ever going to achieve your desires and goals?
And you have no shortage of desires and goals, do you?
You desire the promotion you’re working toward.
You want that big, beautiful home, like the one your friends just moved into.
You wish for a wonderful partner, or at least something better than all the duds you’ve been dating lately.
These desires and goals are a natural part of being human.
But, have you ever noticed a commonality among them all?
I recently read a line in Sam Harris’ book Waking Up that really struck me. His point was roughly, we’re all trying to make our way back to the present and to be satisfied there.
There is something heartbreakingly true about this statement. We mostly live our lives looking to the future for salvation because we think our present circumstances aren’t good enough.
Do you think your happiness will arrive only once your desires have been satisfied and your goals have been achieved?
The tragedy of our predicament
We’re all a little crazy. There’s no debating that.
But when it comes to our own happiness, we’re stark raving mad.
You, me, everyone — we’re all stuck in a life-long spiral into misery. And we jump, willingly, into this shit storm every day. Let me explain.
Say, you want a promotion at work. Maybe you feel like you’ve been passed over for it in the past, maybe you think your work speaks for itself. Whatever the reason, wanting the promotion makes you feel dissatisfied with the job you’ve got. You fantasize about what your life will be like when you finally get that promotion — you think to yourself, then I’ll be happy.
The craziness that most of us either tend not to notice or not think twice about, is how our lives change when we actually get what we’ve been wanting.
We’ve all been there before. We’ve wanted something for so long and then we finally get it. How does it feel?
It feels great right? You’re on cloud nine. The world is your oyster. Life finally seems to make sense.
Then, inevitably, the excitement of your victory quiets down. After a couple weeks or months, what you wanted for so long no longer satisfies you. So, you start to want something new, which makes you feel dissatisfied with what you’ve got.
This is the perpetual cycle we find ourselves in. We pursue our desires and goals thinking that they will give us some lasting satisfaction. When they don’t — and this is the crazy part — we don’t even bat an eye, and instead start chasing after our next desire as if it will give us some lasting satisfaction.
This keeps us constantly looking to the past for answers to the question, where did I go wrong? and to the future to fantasize about what we don’t yet have. And while we do this, our lives quietly pass us by.
We experience only fleeting moments of satisfaction, wondering whether this is all there is.
If the definition of insane is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, well then we’re guilty as charged.
There’s got to be a way of finding satisfaction today, now, in this moment.
Pulling ourselves into the present
Are desires and goals are bad? No, of course not.
Setting goals for yourself and determining how to achieve them is critical to self-improvement and realizing your potential.
But you need to be careful.
A study by Killingsworth and Gilbert concluded, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, and found that regardless of what people are thinking about, they are never happier than when living in the present moment (see here).
Does this surprise you? Not even thinking about positive events will bring you more happiness than simply living in the moment.
Does this mean that all the thinking you’re doing about that promotion, that new house, or that great partner might actually be making you unhappy?
Not necessary, but it does depend on how you’re thinking about them.
If you’re focussed on figuring out a plan for how to achieve those goals, then you are meaningfully engaging in the present moment. In other words, you’re being present even though you’re planning for the future.
Contrast this to the vast quantity of time you spend fantasizing about yourself having already achieved those same desires and goals.
How often do you picture yourself having been given that promotion, having moved into that new house, or having found that perfect partner?
If you pay close enough attention, you will notice that you spend an unbelievable amount of time thinking about something other than the present moment. In fact, the study mentioned above found that on average our minds wander about 47% of the time.
Now, this is not to say that there’s nothing useful that can be gained by a wandering mind. But if you’re constantly caught up in the experience of mind wandering — if you’re constantly lost in thought — you have to wonder whether your life wouldn’t be improved by bringing yourself into the present moment a little more frequently.
Just like most things, there is a balance to strike.
It is worthwhile to be mindful of your thoughts, in particular your fantasies about how things could have been or how things might be. These can be tempting thoughts to think, but they simply distract you from doing the work that will bring your desires and goals into reality.
If you find yourself fantasizing about a future state, remind yourself that fantasizing about it won’t bring it any closer to reality. There are better things you can be doing with your time.
And remind yourself that you’ll always be happier by engaging in the present moment. This is not always easy, which is probably why we’re often distracted in the first place. But the more you try, the easier it becomes. Fight to stay present, and you will see it pay off for you.
How to be happy now
What’s there to be happy about now, anyway? Sure, you might have your health, you might have a stable job or partner, you might have good friendships or enough money to travel to an exotic location each year. But if you’re happy now, if you’re satisfied with your current circumstances, doesn’t that mean you’ve given up? Doesn’t that mean you’ve stopped trying to achieve the things you’ve always wanted? Doesn’t that mean you’re a loser?
This might be one of the greatest reasons to not be happy now, to not be satisfied now. We fear that if we’re satisfied, our lives will stop improving. But, does this need to be the case?
A friend of mine who I wall climb with once said, by focussing on the outcome of the climb, you are taking your mind and attention away from literally the only thing that will help you achieve success — the individual moves needed to complete the route.
Doesn’t this apply to all of life? If I want to succeed at work, don’t I need to focus on the work I’m actually doing? If I want an amazing relationship, don’t I need to focus on the things needed to build one?
Thinking about what you want in the mid- to long-term is great, but only insofar as it sets a direction for you. What you need to do next is live in the steps that get you there.
Is it possible to find happiness and satisfaction in the steps you take, on a daily basis, that move you toward your desires and goals? Can you reframe the way you think about the work you do to be able to see the purpose in all the tasks in front of you?
I think that this is the key to finding fulfillment, happiness, and satisfaction in the present moment.
The author of the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, believes that happiness is the joy you feel striving after your potential. He doesn’t think happiness is found in the achieving, but in the striving — in the steps.
You’ve probably heard it said before that life is a process not a destination. Isn’t this exactly what we’re talking about? The more we focus on our destination, the more we push our happiness and satisfaction into the future. The more we focus on the process, the easier it is to see the joy and satisfaction in the work we are doing today because we understand that we are doing the work that will ultimately get us to where we want to go.
Does this require patience? Yeah, sure. Does it require commitment? Absolutely. Is this easy? Hell, no.
But given the choice between an easy but shitty life and a hard but good one, which would you choose?
So this is my advice to you: remind yourself frequently that the present moment matters because it’s the only place where you can do the work that will ever allow you to achieve your goals. And remind yourself that if you’re doing the work necessary to achieve your goals (and you’ve chosen your goals well!), there’s literally nothing else in the world you’d rather be doing.
If this isn’t the case for you, then you’ve simply chosen the wrong goals to work toward or you haven’t accepted the reality of the steps needed to achieve them.
Stop fixating on the future, stop fixating on outcomes. Do your work, here and now. This will lead to your happiness. I promise.