Why thinking about looking forward or looking back reminded me how to live in the present
On a recent episode of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast (episode 108), Gretchen and her sister/cohost Liz discussed an idea inspired by the movie Before Sunrise: Do you feel more like an old woman looking back on her life, or more like a kid pretending to be a grown-up? Our response to this question is one way to know and understand ourselves better.
I suspect that many of us do not feel our chronological age. Rather, we have an age in our mind’s eye that resonates with us. For me, that age is around 25. Firmly rooted in adulthood, but still right on the cusp of adult life, feeling as though life is full of infinite possibilities. But as I’ve gotten older, I have felt myself shifting in the other direction and feeling more like the old woman looking back.
Optimism and Motivation
Both outlooks come with their own implications. I find the outlook of looking forward to be happier and more optimistic. Even if we feel we are “faking” our way through our lives as adults, the future is spread wide open before us. However, it is not necessarily a view filtered through reality.
The “old woman” outlook, that of looking backwards at our lives, can be tinged with sadness. The Happier podcast discusses the idea of “anticipatory nostalgia,” which is an idea I have always thought of as preemptive loss. I once had a friend tell me he felt a tiny bit sad even during happy times, because a part of him was afraid he would never feel this happy again. I knew exactly what he was talking about—sometimes there is a preemptive grieving for the loss of something wonderful, even while it’s still happening.
However, even though there can be an uncomfortable ache that goes along with looking back at our lives, I find this to be the more motivating of the two outlooks. When we imagine ourselves looking back at our lives from the vantage point of our older selves, we are forced to ask what we want that life to look like. When we recognize that our days are limited, we are far more likely to take action and make changes in order to make our lives reflect the story we want to tell. When we’re always viewing the world through youthful eyes, the future seems to stretch on indefinitely. It can be hard to find the momentum to take risks or make difficult decisions when we feel there is always a “someday” available.
The present self
As I write this, I am wondering about a third outlook: the present moment. There is a Buddhist saying that, “The body is anchored in the here and now, while the mind travels to the past and future.”
What if we could be so grounded in the present, in our present bodies, that we don’t often view our lives looking forward or backward?
I know. “Live in the moment” is hardly a new or unique concept. It’s a cliché and easier said than done. In our busy lives, our minds wander back and forth in time, sometimes ruminating over or relishing the past, sometimes dreaming and scheming of the future. I think the key is in our body, this body that is “anchored in the here and now.”
Sometimes simply paying attention to the body–how it feels, what our senses are experiencing, where we are tense–can help keep us grounded in the present. This doesn’t have to involve anything extensive or time consuming. Simply take a few seconds to notice what your body is feeling. What do you hear? What do you smell? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable? Do you feel any areas of tension?
In Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present invites Scrooge to “come in and know me better,” and proceeds to show Scrooge the realities of the world surrounding him. The present is, of course, the only place we can truly effect change and take action.
Could this be the happiness sweet spot?