The Bad Old Days Does living in the past stop us from living in the here and now?

Read more Last updated: April 2018
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It is easy to get stuck in the past. We think of our childhood, a time without responsibilities when the future stretched ahead filled with unlimited potential. But does living in the past, or failing to imagine a better future, stop us from living in the here and now?

We are happiest when we live in the present

In a 2010 Harvard University study into mental wellbeing, psychologists observed that their 2,250 volunteers were unhappiest when they were reminiscing, thinking ahead or daydreaming. "Human beings have this unique ability to focus on things that aren't happening right now. That allows them to reflect on the past and learn from it; it allows them to anticipate and plan for the future; and it allows them to imagine things that might never occur," said Matthew Killingsworth, lead author of the study. "At the same time, it seems that human beings often use this ability in ways that are not productive and furthermore can be destructive to our happiness," he added. The study incidentally found that we were happiest when exercising, being intimate with our partner, or in conversation and least happy when working, resting or using a home computer.

Happy girl
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Is living in the past a bad thing?

Of course there is a difference between dwelling momentarily on the past and living in it. When you recall positive events, just thinking back on them gives you a feeling of comfort and happiness. Take these examples: it can often be easier to reminisce about your teenage love than it can be to fix problems in a marriage. It can often be easier to daydream about the big house where you grew up than to save for a deposit for your first home. There is a comforting familiarity that comes from reliving past events which helps us avoid dealing with a problematic present. While recalling negative events is useful if we can learn from them, living in the past can be problematic when it robs us of the ability to deal with and feel happy in our present. Yale University psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema called this rumination, the compulsively focused attention on prior events and their negative connotations rather than their positive aspects. Rumination involves not just noticing the negatives but constantly experiencing them. That is when stress creeps in, and ultimately, episodes of anxiety and depression.

Why we fail to imagine a better future

Just as living in the past can be problematic, so can living the future. As a key difference in those suffering from stress and anxiety, therapists have observed that these people have a skewed view of what the future holds. Obsessive thoughts on what “might” happen and anticipating dangers based on the outcomes of past events all conspire to make us more anxious and lower our mood. Most of us enjoy making plans, indeed some have observed that planning for the future can make us happier, presumably because it turns a chaotic mass of elements into something our brains can process.

Why can’t we just be more satisfied with what we have now?

If living the present makes up happiest, why do we struggle with it so much? We are so ground down by small daily worries, we often feel that we will only be truly happy when “the next big thing” happens. This might be a new job, a new partner or a new house perhaps. We think only when this big change occurs wewill be truly happy and able to enjoy the present. But that is never really the case. We might be happy for a few weeks after we land that new job or new relationship, but if our general state is one of discontent thenthat blissful state never seems to last for long. More often than not, these life events simply serve as a distraction.

Research shows gratitude increases levels of happiness

In an experiment on gratitude psychologists and authors of “The Psychology of Gratitude” McCulloch and Emmons split several hundred people into three groups and asked everyone to keep a daily diary.

The first group was to record events from their day without being specifically told to write good or bad things, the second group was told to write about their bad experiences and the third group was asked to keep a daily list of things they were grateful for. The results indicated that those people in the third group were happier, more alert, more motivated and experienced less depression and stress. The psychologists were also quick to point out that those people who practiced gratitude tended to bounce back quicker from adversity. Dr Emmons pointed out: “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings.”

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Count your blessings – both big and small

People tend to take for granted what is good about their lives in the present, but key to living in the present and fostering that basic feeling of content is about counting your blessings – both big and small. Imagine losing some of the things we take for granted in our lives, for example our friends, family, health, home and hearing. Then imagine getting everythingback, one by one. Just consider how grateful you would feel. But it is not just the big things. A beautiful sunny day doesn’t come about every day, nor does having the exact change in the bakery, making the subway train just seconds before the door closesor being able to hear the birdstweeting again after receiving a hearing solution. Sometimes taking pleasure in the small things can be all that is needed to bring us back into the present.

Five ways to live more in the moment

  • Write gratitude lists: Each evening before you got to bed note down all the things you are grateful for that day. Read them again in the morning before work, then pin them up on the fridge for when you come home. Constant reminders of the blessings in your life will help you to feel more in the present.
  • Use your body: When using our bodies we succumb less to the uncomfortable symptoms of stress. Using our bodies frees up our mind, and we are also less likely to keep looking at our watches, keeping track on that ever elusive concept of time. Rather than thinking ‘I am going to walk for the next 30 minutes’, try setting a specific goal such as ‘I am going to climba hill’ or ‘I am going to walk to the other side of the park and back’.
  • Accept your situation: We all have irritants in our lives. Rather than struggling to overcome problems, or resigning yourself to them, simply accept that at this present time a particular problem is beyond your control.
  • Do one thing at a time: Multitasking is a good talent to have, and with it we achieve a great deal, but it does nothing to help us live in the present. When cutting bread, just cut. When pouring water, just pour. When listening to the precious sounds in life, just listen.
  • Be realistic with your time: Running from one appointment to another because you have stretched yourself too thin time wise can send you crazy. Be realistic with the amount of time you have, how long it takes you to travel and finish pieces of work. Abandon hopes of pleasing all of the people, all of the time.

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