I spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. What makes me happy. What would make me happy. Do I even know how to be happy?
Often times I think: If only I lived in a new city, returned to that thing in my past that I once enjoyed, got a new job, went on this amazing trip – then I would be happy. Other times I let fears, anxieties, and unmet expectations ruin those things that I do achieve.
After a recent near anxiety attack, I started to think about how looking back at the past and anticipating the future doesn’t do me any favors, and I realized that not appreciating my present is a main reason for unsustained happiness.
In reaction, I’ve gone to meditation a couple of times and tried to breathe through my panic of the “what now” feeling I’ve always battled. While I see the benefit in those coping mechanisms, they definitely take time and practice in order for them to be effective. Being an impatient person, I reached out to some experts for other tips on living more presently.
Rethink the past and future
It’s been said that focusing on the past causes depression, and worrying about the future causes anxiety.
Therefore, professional organizer and productivity consultant Michelle Rosen advised, “Rather than dwelling in the past, look back with intention. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it, celebrate past successes, check for patterns of behaviors that keep cropping up, and use that retrospection to inform the here and now.”
As for the future, there is a difference between stressing out about it and planning for it.
Life coach Vikki Louise, said, “I am a big believer in setting goals for the future, and love teaching others to do this, but when thinking about our future we have to remember our brain has a negativity bias. So, when we think about an uncertain future our brain will focus on the worst case scenarios, thinking it is protecting you.”
To counteract those negative thoughts, she recommended, “To live in the present is to break life down into the present. Asking simple questions – what do I want from today? What is one thing I can do today to feel empowered?”
No choice but to be present
Ben Winter, owner of Success Improv, suggested taking an improv class in order to learn how to live in the here and now.
“When performing improv, you must be present to understand where things are going, what was said, how to interpret it, and respond accordingly. When we are thinking about the past or the future, we might miss something very important in the now.”
Researcher and founder of Nature Builds Health Bart Wolbers recommended “a total immersion in an activity that needs to be challenging but not too difficult. Surfing, painting, writing, or even computer games allow for that total immersion.”
“When you challenge yourself on a surfboard,” he continued, “it’s almost impossible not to ‘zone out’ of the past or future, and focus on your feet and waves.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be such extreme activities. Something as simple as taking a walk or doing yoga and solely focusing on every movement and feeling could benefit us as well.
If we’re constantly looking for people, places, and things to meet our preconceived ideas and hopes, or if we’re trying to adhere to what we think other people expect of us, we aren’t accepting experiences for what they are. Therefore, expectations can be a true happiness killer.
“If you go out for a run, you might say to yourself, ‘This run is a failure if I don’t run 8 minute miles,’” mused mindfulness teacher and performance coach Travis Baird. “This strict expectation makes it incredibly difficult to truly experience your run. Instead of feeling your body as you run, and seeing and hearing your environment, you feel the tension of forcing yourself to hit a specific pace. And then if one mile is too slow, the whole run feels like a failure.”
“It’s helpful to have goals in life,” Baird continued, “but it’s also important to hold them loosely enough that we can experience the fullness of our lives.”
Or, as Rosen offered in one of my favorite pieces of advice – lower the bar.
Because if you don’t have expectations (or ridiculously high ones) then you can’t be disappointed. You might even find you’re pleasantly surprised by an outcome.
Stop chasing happiness
I feel I’ve come to terms with my past enough that I don’t live there anymore. But I still need to work on not chasing happiness. I spent the last decade constantly moving, trying to find new places to visit, and seeking adventures to try. While I do enjoy those things, once the thrill wears off I scramble to try and find something else to fill the void, or fall into a depressed state when something ends.
I’m now at a point where I can’t think of anything new I want to do or see or try. And that of course has left me feeling pretty empty – what do I do now?
Maybe the answer is nothing. To just appreciate where I’m at and what I’m currently doing. To not worry about what the future will bring, and embrace the happiness that does come my way.
That’s a tall order for me, but avoiding the happiness traps Molly Bahr, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, warned against could probably help with that. Those include: happiness is our natural state; if we aren’t happy, there’s something wrong with us; to live a better life, we have to get rid of negative feelings.
“It could be helpful to normalize all feelings,” Bahr suggested, while embracing the idea that “being content or neutral is a more natural state than [being] happy.”
It’s definitely something to add to the above list of ways to savor the here and now.