Recently I had a healthy exchange with a good friend on the topic of happiness. She leveraged the Eckhart Tolle premise of happiness being only in the “now” – the present, and as such, not dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. I have had several issues with this premise for many years despite being a fan of Tolle.
First, the idea of being present in every moment (the now) is indeed a powerful one. Though most think of it philosophically or spiritually, there is in fact neuroscience that can support this. To be present in the now requires a very high degree of awareness, which really means that all five senses are fully engaged and supporting a cognitive set of reactions that reduce cortisol (fear) levels and increase dopamine (happy) levels. Athletes frequently describe this state as ‘being in a zone’ but rarely knowing how to make it happen again. Since life gets in the way, many of us have to make time to be in the now, and create a time/place to practice it, like meditation. This is all healthy as they simply are proactive ways to engage all our senses collectively to change those chemicals/hormones in our body.
Second, the notion that this (happiness) can only be achieved in the now is a false dichotomy. The past is a place with all kinds of memories. From the negative ones, they can represent a garden of fruitful learnings, to the positive memories that can provide an equally powerful place of peace and serenity. For my third book, Is Today The Day, written 13 years ago, I had to interview terminally-ill people with Stage IV cancer. For them, those positive memories were all they had and brought tremendous joy and happiness. Past memories of achievement, places visited, loved ones, friends, and battles overcome are very powerful. They were also most astute to express their regrets with their negative past experiences as they proactively tried to make sense of them all. For those who chose to revisit those negative experiences and make peace with them came a profoundly deeper sense of peace and happiness. My point is that the past left alone is a past that will always rear its ugly head. The past where meaning has been discovered, is a past that plays a significant role in your happiness today. I can explain this with neuroscience terms but it would take too long.
Thirdly, the future is also a powerful source of happiness. I have had the great fortune to witness astounding human achievement based solely on the emotion of hope. Hope is the better brother of worry and it is the anticipation of something good to happen (optimism) when there are no logical reasons to believe so. Hope is all about the future. I have often told people that I coach that those who believe that their best days are in fact ahead of them, end up having their best days ahead of them. Dreams are hopes manifested and where imagination is nurtured. Just as in the past, the future is equally an amazing source of peace and happiness. I understand many people struggle with their past and rightfully worry about the future. This is symptomatic of not having skills or tools to process the past or the future. To shove them away and focus solely on the present is not necessary and I argue an incomplete and unrealistic way to find complete happiness.
This week, think of just one negative experience from your past and one item about the future that worries you. With the item from the past, complete this sentence: From that experience, I have/can learn the following _________________. With the one you worry about, complete this sentence: if I take these 3 action steps this week, I could potentially positively impact this worry_________________________. All of life lives in our brain. The monologue news reporting you give yourself on all experiences (past, present, future) is the centerpiece of your happiness.