Time, and our experience of it, is complicated.
Good times go fast, hard times stretch out, and boredom occurs only in infinite spurts. We humans are not great at putting time in perspective. Unhelpfully, our brain is in on the joke: the way we experience, record, retain, and relive memories varies widely.
“In fact, scientists are not sure how the brain tracks time,” writes New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey. “One theory holds that it has a cluster of cells specialized to count off intervals of time; another that a wide array of neural processes act as an internal clock.”
Then there are psychological phenomena like the “reminiscence bump”: most of our remembered experience occurs in young adulthood, and our twenties and early thirties in particular seem to be disproportionately important for making lifelong memories. This may be because a lot tends to happen in those decades: we’re young people forming families, building the foundation for careers, and becoming ourselves along the way.
But even during relatively smaller windows of time, like a long flight, the hours seem to pass at different speeds: the first hour snails by, the second a bit faster, and subsequent hours move along more quickly.
In short, our perception of time is a lot messier than a clock may make it seem, and it can affect our happiness when we mourn its swift passing or lie in wait for what’s to come. Reminiscing and anticipation have their places, but we need to invest in the now as much as the then in order to squeeze the most out of life—or at the very least, to stop living for the past and the future at the direct expense of the present.
Happiness is a present tense kind of thing
We are not happy in the past; neither are we happy in the future. We are only in the now, and it is only in each moment that we have the potential to reach out, experience, live, and change.
Gretchen Rubin, a lawyer-turned-happiness-researcher, parses out happiness in a very logical way. In order to be happy, she writes in her book The Happiness Project, one needs to concentrate on four items: feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, all while in an atmosphere of growth. Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky agrees: according to her, happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
While some of these depend on actions done in our past or goals we are working towards in our future, the idea of right-now happiness doesn’t necessarily depend on future success or past failures. It depends on what we’re doing right now that allows us to immerse ourselves in our present; that allows us to feel like we’re living the life that we should be; that allows us to relax fully, without guilt, because we know we’re en route to greatness.
This last idea ties back into older philosophies of happiness, such as Aristotle’s, which posit that happiness is the very aim of our entire lives, attainable through simple decisions (like the decision to be happy). It’s the journey toward embetterment and the accompanying joy that makes us happy during our lifetimes. We are human. We are happy in pursuit, in media res, in the thick of it. In the moment.
A large part of happiness is our present activity. It’s time to realize that responsibility and run with it.
How to live in the moment
- Be where you are. Happiness levels reported in modernity show a critical low in people’s appreciation of their current lives. While there may be a testing bias there, as well as the fact that we’re now able to prioritize our happiness levels instead of focusing on things like the plague, there are interesting data trends to analyze. One of the biggest differences between then and now is how fast things are—and the plethora of options we now have vying for our time.
Ignore the other options and choose to be where you are—instead of caving to FOMO and choosing your phone over the simple pleasure of a dinner conversation or reading a book long into the night. The idea of being all-in can be simultaneously terrifying and boring, but the act of investing in our present in simple, mindful ways has incredible benefits for our happiness.
- Be when you are. “I’ll be happier when I make more money/am thinner/have more time.” Sound familiar?
It’s the arrival fallacy, and most of us ascribe to it. Some facts for you: there's a salary threshold beyond which more doesn’t make us happier, thin people aren’t necessarily happier than the rest of us, and we have more time than we often think we do. It's important to have goals, but less happiness hinges on their achievement than you might think. One goal begets another; and, often, by the time we reach goals, we’ve been expecting and have already incorporated the happiness of attaining it. We're humans; we're hungry for growth. It's the growing that does it for us, not the being fully grown. For happiness, we must look less to a nebulous future and more to our gloriously messy, deceptively mundane, miraculously real present.
Lifehack: Figure out the “why” of your goals. Is your real “why” that you’d like to have more time… so you can watch goofy movies with your family, or learn how to play the theme from The Office? Schedule a movie night. Dust off the piano. Skip the interim and do that now.
- Step outside your routines. Cultivating healthy routines is essential, but they come with pros and cons. The very fact that we don’t have to think about our habits means that they tend to blur together: following the rote motions often speeds up our perception of time. It’s invaluable to step out of routine on occasion to slow down, to do something out of the ordinary, or even just to look upon the world with renewed wonder.
- Don’t save too many things for later—exclusively at the expense of present enjoyment, at least. Give yourself permission to listen to your favorite music on repeat. Don’t have a dusty closet full of nice things for future, more worthy occasions. They’re not doing anyone any favors in storage. Figure out which things actually make you happy—blueberries? Paper airplanes? Lying on the floor with earbuds in? Using your dog as a pillow?—and do them as often as you can. Things that are popular happiness-inducers, but don’t work for you? Don't do them.
- Remember that small steps go a long way. An easy way to make any task 1000% more enjoyable is to take five seconds beforehand to light a candle, put on the proper jams, or simply ensure that enough lighting is present so a chore doesn’t have to be a pain. We get a ridiculous return on tiny investments. Consider the amount of happiness in a thirteen-minute stroll where you’re not impatiently pulling your dog all over the sidewalk as opposed to the ten-minute forced march in which you are; doing the dishes and cooking dinner when you've planned it out and put on a fun podcast, instead of cooking instant rice and scarfing it over the kitchen sink (but hey, been there); or the pleasure that comes with reading a book or taking a nap after we've lit a candle, put on fuzzy socks, and brewed a cup of tea, as opposed to sitting down once the idea possesses us to read in the first place. Taking a minute to set the mood generates manifold benefits, but we have to remind ourselves that it’s worth it.
For all you over-planners, over-preparers, and those who often sacrifice the “now” for the “then”: life, and happiness, is often in the tiny and the small—in the moment. Let’s start taking it one moment at a time.