I’m not sure whether it’s the overflow of graduation images or the beginning of summer posts, but around this time every year, I find myself reflecting on the past and anticipating the future.
I review what I've accomplished since my own graduation, how the people in my life have changed, the relationships I've started and ended and all the things I would have done differently had I known what I know now.
In the same thought, I anticipate exactly what I am doing with my life, what will happen with current relationships and whether I will finally learn from my past mistakes.
However, neither reflections nor anticipations can be controlled.
Life unfolds in the present, yet we spend so much time fretting about the future and ruminating on the past.
Is this the most advantageous approach to life, or should we simply live in the moment?
Researchers and philosophers have long been interested in the subjective experience of time: how individuals relate to their pasts, are mindful of their presents and envision their futures.
One’s emphasis on the past, present or future (i.e. one’s temporal orientation) is predictive of many outcomes, such as occupational and educational success, engagement in risky behavior, financial stability, depression and health.
Are you the type of person who tends to focus more on the past, present or future? What extent do each of the following questions apply to you?
I replay memories of the past in my mind.
I reflect on what has happened in my life.
I think about things from my past.
I think back to my earlier days.
I focus on what is currently happening in my life.
My mind is on the here and now.
I think about where I am today.
I live my life in the present.
I think about what my future has in store.
I think about times to come.
I focus on my future.
I imagine what tomorrow will bring for me.
By using the above Temporal Focus Scale, researchers have found that past-focused individuals tend to be more negative, as past focus is related to increased neuroticism and negative mood, and decreased life and job satisfaction, optimism and attitude.
Conversely, present-focused and future-focused individuals tend to be overall more positive, and they were both associated with increased life satisfaction, optimism, conscientiousness and positive mood.
This emphasis on living in the moment, termed "mindfulness," is at the root of yoga, Buddhism, Taoism and many Native-American traditions.
Defined as “a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present,” becoming mindful entails being an observer of your own thoughts from moment to moment without judgment or direction.
Focusing on the present moment forces one to stop overthinking, reduces self-consciousness, increases self-control and promotes acceptance of emotions.
While it may be important to live in the moment, it is not easy. I should know, as I am an admitted worrier, over-analyzer and over-planner.
By living in the future, which we cannot control, we miss out on the present, which will at some point become the past, which we cannot change. See the irony?
Mindfulness isn't a goal because goals are about the future, but one has to set the intention of paying attention to what's happening in the present moment in order to achieve this mindset.
Practicing mindfulness is not trying to have a clear mind. If you wander and notice you are wandering, it's a good thing.
A cartoon from "The New Yorker" may help articulate the experience of mindfulness: Two monks are sitting side by side, meditating. The younger one is giving the older one a quizzical look, to which the older one responds,
"Nothing happens next. This is it." When you have achieved that experience, you're living in the moment. Nothing happens next. It's not a destination; you’re already there.