Past, Present, Future

Metaphors for appreciating the now. Flowers in the Magnolia Grove neighborhood, Houston. March 6, 2013.

We’ve all met the guy who still lives the glory days of high school.

And we’ve all sacrificed the present moment for the possibilities of tomorrow. (Or is that just me?)

Research shows that people who immerse in the task at hand feel the most content. When people reminisce, daydream, or project thoughts into the future, they report feeling less happy than they do when they focus on the present, according to a study out of Harvard.

So we should live in the present?

Not so fast.

The classic Stanford marshmallow experiment indicates that rewards await people who defer gratification. The experiment offered children one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they could wait fifteen minutes. The study found that the children who waited experienced greater future success.

So we should live for tomorrow?

Nay.

No one lives forever. No one has even promised us tomorrow. And that study I mentioned above shows that we won’t feel terribly happy if we never revel in the present.

Conundrum?

Maybe not.

My take: Focus on the present, appreciate it, and find happiness within it—without sacrificing future good in the process.

Even if you’re undertaking a task you’d omit if it didn’t help your future—studying, for example—immerse yourself fully and appreciate the activity’s intrinsic value. Meantime, don’t use present pleasure as an excuse to sacrifice future possibilities. (For example, I have no direct experience, but heroin seems to make people feel pretty fantastic for a brief time. In the long run? It ruins their lives. No narcotics for you, my friend.)

As for the past: You’ll feel less happy focusing on it and, other than gleaning from it lessons to carry forward, it’s over. Move on.

Where do you live? Past, present, or future?