Friday, April 6, 2012

Code Names

A conversation from a few weeks ago:

Me: “My female friends and I come up with code names for guys so we can talk about them without others knowing who we're referring to. Guys we're interested in, guys that are friends, guys we can't stand, guys we barely know... But never for other women. Why is that?”

My dad: “It's because men are an alien species.”

Me: “I KNEW IT!!!!”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Living in the Present

I think the happiest people are those who live in the present. When it comes to thinking optimistically, it's so much easier to do so by escaping to the past or future; reliving happy memories or imagining the way things might eventually be. Living in the moment sounds great. And it is... right up until you get bored in the moment. Or things could be better than they are. Or something not so pleasant happens. Suddenly, memories and imaginings start looking so much more appealing.

The reason that I think those who live in the present are happiest is because they don't try to mentally escape their life. If they become bored with something, they search for interest in the situation. If they're depressed about the way things are going, they look around themselves for something to be happy about. By turning to memories and plans when life becomes less than ideal, future and past thinkers inadvertently wind up placing more value on some experiences more than others. Those who consistently live in the present, however, develop the ability to find happiness in a much wider variety of experiences.

Another advantage of the present is that it feels more real than the past or future. This may sound obvious, but when faced with a choice between an unpleasant present and a vague but happy memory, I suspect most people would go for the memory. This doesn't completely solve the problem. You only escape the present to the degree that you are able to imagine things or recall events and feelings clearly.

In contrast, someone who is used to living from moment to moment will have a higher capacity for changing their perspective of the situation, in some cases turning an unpleasant experience into a meaningful one. The present thinker may wind up happier than the past or future thinker because not only can they find meaning in a wider range of situations, but their experiences tend to be more real. (As an aside, really taking in everything around you and observing many different aspects of life will also help with improving both imagination and the clarity of memories.)

Undeniably, it's still useful to know how to plan ahead, or learn from the past. There may be times when these skills are needed to take action or add context, and a change in perspective in the "now" may not always cut it.

However, I know that I, for one, am particularly underdeveloped in my ability to stay focused on the “now”. Personally, when I try to live in the present for any extended period of time, I inevitably have the thought, “So... is this all there is?” Even when life around me is going very well and I have a strong feeling of contentment, such a thought is nevertheless quite unnerving. Perhaps it just shows how ingrained my habit of always looking for “more” is. In any case, I look forward to gaining experience on how to live from moment to moment.

I'd be curious to find out where other people spend most their mental energy: the past, present, or future :)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Living in the past

As mentioned in the previous post, I tend to live in the future. Others, however, might choose to live in the past. A good example is my mom. When I was a kid, I used to get upset when I only had a couple weeks of summer vacation left. My mom would always try to cheer me up by saying, “But you had such great summer! Think about all the times we went to the park and the beach and how...” and she would list a few things then try to get me to add to it.

At the time, this only served to heighten my despair. I was a future thinker; I'd be thinking, 'yes indeed, summer vacation is really great... and it's about to be over!' It was baffling, back then, that my mom thought the past could hold any consolation for me. In hindsight, it's clear that my mom had experience deriving joy from memories and simply assumed I had the same ability. In fact, I barely began to reflect on my past at all until my early teens.

When I first started thinking in terms of the past, it was mostly regrets; things I wished I hadn't done and, even more often, things I wish I had done. Unfortunately, the past usually just left me crushed with guilt. I didn't like thinking about it because I wasn't totally happy with who I was as a person. That's why thinking about the future was so much more appealing. With the future, I could still become anyone. The good news is that once I started looking back on my life, I started to understand how certain events had shaped my values. I didn't always embody the values I believed in, but at least I began to identify what they were.

For quite a few years still, even happy memories of the best parts of my childhood only served to make me wish I could turn back time. I didn't seem to be able to look back without rewriting certain events and even my own perspective. My imagination was constantly at work on my memories, making edits to create a story that would only have been possible if I had learned early on lessons that can only come from hindsight.

Later, after I became an optimist, I began to learn the art of accepting good memories as they are, leaving them unchanged and experiencing their joy all over again. Sometimes even more joy than I felt at the time. For me, it's not quite the same as simply reliving the past like a scene from an old movie. It happens when, for example, I'm walking home from the bus stop and I catch the scent BBQ somewhere in the neighborhood. It reminds me of times in my childhood when my family and friends and I would be out in the woods having a BBQ picnic.

The present gets linked to the past and the result is a feeling better than either one on its own. If I hadn't had those memories, the scent of BBQ would have merely been some odd scent (or perhaps it would have just made me hungry). And while I may have been happy and content back when I was a kid, the present experience provides another layer of meaning, since I've had time to learn to appreciate things in new ways.

The past is a great tool for understanding yourself better, and for learning from your mistakes. But living too much in the past presents similar problems as living too much in the future. Guilt is only useful to a point, after which it can stifle your confidence and creativity, keeping you from moving on and changing. Even dwelling too much on good times that are over can hinder the forming of new ones. As with the future, the key is not to spend all your mental time there. Instead, visit your memories from time to time, learn from them, and use them to reinforce what you believe in and what gives you happiness.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Living in the Future

My own tendency, I find, is to live in the future. What I mean by this is that I'm constantly thinking ahead of where I am. I'm constantly planning, thinking about the next thing I have to worry about or to look forward to. If I have nothing I need to do on a particular day (a rarity for a college student such as myself), I find myself looking ahead to the next task I can think of. And once I have that task figured out, I plan further ahead. And once I've planned as far as I can in detail, I start thinking about where I'm going with my life in the long run... What I inevitably find is that it is pointless to try to see more than a few years ahead of myself. Sure, it can be done, but meaning seems to dissolve whenever I try.

The few times I have attempted to lay my entire life out in front of me, like a story plotted out onto a time-line, I've been seized by a sort of, for lack of a better phrase, “existential despair”. Looking at my life in such a way seems to shorten it and cause it to loose all it's depth; relationships are reduced to formulas and scripts, hobbies become a way of using up time, careers a way of filling up the time between hobbies and beauty and happiness become stagnant ideals.

Needless to say, I don't like to go to quite that extreme when I think ahead of where I am. However, I do have a habit of looking ahead to my next goal or thing I want and planning it out in great detail, inventing in my mind a detailed scene or a set of events to make up a story. At some point I realized that the purpose of this was not merely to plan for practicality's sake, but to give myself something to think about that would make me happy. So I want something now that I don't have? No problem! I have imagination. I can just create it in my head. If I think about it long enough, it'll eventually become as potent an experience as a memory.

One of the more obvious problems occurs when my goal is too far away or unrealistic to come true anytime soon, but close enough to reality that I don't recognize it as a fantasy. A memory or imagined event can never seem to reach the same strength of experience as the present, and the contrast between the happy but vague future improbability and the reality of the pesky present is the source of much frustration.

There are more healthy and practical ways to use thoughts of the future. For example, planning ahead in the sense of thinking about what needs to be done, deciding what you're going to do and when, then letting it go until action is required. Also, looking to the future can be used as a form of optimism, as a way of seeing creative possibilities or building confidence in your abilities (if you're not able to do something in the present, you still have time to develop new capabilities to attain your goals in the future). The thing to stay away from, as I know all too well, is living so much in the future that you fail to see what you have in the present.