Do you feel like your “glory days'' are long gone? Or maybe you feel like your current reality is a drag compared to your past. If this sounds like you, you may have a case of declinism.
Declinism occurs when you view your past with rose-colored glasses and view the future through a pessimistic lens. This point of view can be a slippery slope leading to apathy and depression. But a shift in perspective can awaken you to the beautiful potential of each and every day.
If you’re ready to feel excited about your future again, then this article is for you. These tips will help you overcome declinism to develop a healthy relationship with the past, present, and future.
What is declinism?
Declinism is a psychological concept where you think the past was exceptionally incredible. Consequently, you see your current and future circumstances as being exceptionally terrible.
This perspective results in us feeling like our current circumstances are so much worse than they were in our past.
You can hear declinism reflected in phrases that you hear all the time. “Things didn’t use to be this bad.” “Back when I was your age, the world wasn’t like this.”
Sound familiar? Listen to your daily conversations and I am sure you will find hints of declinism.
What are examples of declinism?
I encounter declinism almost daily.
Yesterday I was chatting with a patient regarding current events. About five minutes into the conversation the patient said, “I don’t know how you’re going to make it in this world the way it is. It never used to be this hard.”
While no one will argue that bad things happen, there is also so much light and potential for growth in humanity. I have to remind myself and my patients of this on a daily basis.
Because it can get easy to truly believe that things are worse and will only get worse if you don’t find the light.
I caught myself in the trap of declinism the other day while I was running. I was doing my typical evening run when I started to have irritating knee pain.
My first thought was, “When I ran five years ago, I never had any pain. I’m getting old and running is probably just going to suck from now on.”
Writing those words down makes me see how ridiculous they sound. But I too am human.
When things aren’t sunny, it’s easy to remember the past and paint it out to be particularly wonderful. But maybe we’re just letting passing clouds tamper with our view of the present and the potential beauty of tomorrow.
Studies on declinism
Declinism may in part be a default response to what we remember best.
Researchers found that older adults were able to remember memories from their youth more easily than memories later in life. These memories from their youth often brought up positive emotions. And this resulted in thinking the modern-day world was far worse than it was “back then”.
A study in 2003 also found that as time goes on, the negative emotions associated with a memory seem to fade. What’s left are only the happy emotions associated with the memory.
This phenomenon helps to create declinism because our emotions associated with our current reality are less favorable than those associated with our past.
How does declinism affect your mental health?
Highlighting the positives from your past may not sound harmful. But if those positive emotions associated with the past taint your experience of the present, you may be left dissatisfied.
Researchers found that individuals who were overly focused on positive memories from their past were inherently motivated to do so to maintain their well-being.
Logically, this makes sense. If you can remember your past fondly, you’re less likely to feel poorly about yourself.
However, this same protective mechanism of focusing on positive memories without identifying negative emotions from the past resulted in a greater likelihood to experience mild depression.
This is theorized to occur because we believe that our present circumstances are subpar compared to our past. This creates a sense of helplessness in relation to how we approach life.
I can personally relate to this. Sometimes I feel with my day to day life, things are not as exciting as they were when I was in college or grad school.
When I was in grad school, I was stimulated intellectually and had a booming social life.
As a working adult, it’s easy for me to look back on these memories longingly. However, if I take a moment to remember everything then it becomes clear. These years were also associated with high stress and sleepless nights studying for hours on end.
Yet my brain naturally gravitates toward the positive aspects of those memories.
This is why it’s critical to actively overcome declinism so we don’t become stuck in the past and lose our joy in the present.
5 ways to overcome declinism
It’s time to stop glorifying the past. These 5 tips are going to help you get jazzed about today and all of your tomorrows!
1. Look at the facts
The present and future can feel gloomy if we are basing our opinions on only what we hear from others. But it’s important to look at the hard data.
When things get passed from one person to the other, they often get blown out of proportion. This is particularly true when it comes to the news and social media.
By diving into the facts, I am often surprised that things are not as stark as people paint them out to be.
Data is not loaded with emotion. Data tells you the truth of a situation.
Also, when you dive into the data, you find that history reveals we have survived many negative events. And things always have a way of turning themselves around.
Instead of falling into the trap of so-and-so told me this and working yourself into a tizzy, investigate the matter for yourself. You may find by looking at the data you feel far less gloomy about the future than the constant negative messages surrounding you.
2. Focus on the good
No matter how bad things may be, there will always be good. You just have to choose to see it.
When you find yourself wishing you could go back in time, force yourself to point out all the present good in your life. force yourself to focus on the good (there are 7 great tips in this link).
The other day I was in the dumps about the economy. I said, “I wish we could go back to 2019 when things were booming.”
My husband said to me, “How lucky are we to be healthy enough after a global pandemic that we are able to stress about money?”
Ouch. Talk about a wake-up call. But he was right.
It’s easy to think we want to go back to our positive memories and live in them forever. Trust me, I get it.
But your current life could be the positive memory you’re looking back at one day. So why not focus on all the beauty that is already here right now?
3. Imagine your dream future
If you’re stuck focusing on how good things used to be, it’s time to find a way to get excited about the future.
I find myself longing for the past when I don’t have any goals or aspirations that I’m working on.
I personally like to journal out exactly what my dream life would look like. Sometimes this is easily done by writing out your version of the perfect day.
Once you have this, you can identify what steps you need to take to become that person.
When you are actively taking steps to become a better version of you, you feel better. And instead of dreading tomorrow, you get to create a future you’re excited for.
4. Realize challenges are necessary
This next tip is a form of tough love that both you and I need to hear. Challenges are a necessary part of life.
Without tough times, we don’t grow. And our challenges are often the things that help us learn to make a better tomorrow.
So yes, there will be times when your current circumstances are not as fun as your past. But if you stayed in the past, you would never be who you are today.
And the challenges of today may be crafting you into the person the world needs you to be.
My mom was the first to teach me this truth. I remember calling and complaining about the current housing market. My mom was quick to remind me that I have lots of things to be thankful for. Second, she told me that this was an opportunity to refine my understanding of how to be financially savvy.
While I am still facing that challenge, I am now growing into someone who knows the ins and outs of my finances. And this is a gift that I may not have received in the past without this challenging circumstance.
5. Take action
If you still find yourself saying, “The world just isn’t as good as it used to be”, then it’s time for you to help change it.
The only way our current reality will differ is if folks like you take action to help create the future you desire.
This means getting involved in your community. You might volunteer at a food bank to help feed the less fortunate. Or get out there and protest for the matters that rev your engine.
I particularly get frustrated by the current cost of higher education. Consequently, I write and call my government officials regarding the matter. I also have been involved in protests regarding how this results in inequality in education.
The world won’t change with you sitting on the couch. If you can’t let go of past ideals that you think need to be implemented, then it’s time to put in the hard work to see it through. Take action and make the world a better place.
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The glory days are not behind you. Embrace a “the best is yet to come” attitude by using the tips from this article to overcome declinism. And promise me this one thing. Don’t let all the wonder that’s available to you pass you by because you’re focused on the rearview mirror.
What do you think? Are you often showing signs of declinism? What's your favorite tip from this article to help you deal with it? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!