Have you ever heard of the power of now?
It’s the simple idea that there is nothing than what’s happening right now. Literally, nothing else matters. If you’re living in the past, then you’re not living in the now. Therefore, you’re missing out on potential happiness since you’re spending energy on things that have already happened.
Living in the past is generally not a good idea. Yet, a lot of people have difficulties to put the past behind them and start living in the now.
This article is about how to stop living in the past and focus on enjoying the now more. I’ve included interesting studies on how living in the past can affect your happiness, with actionable tips to move forward with your live.
- Mindfulness and living in the present
- How living in the past can affect your happiness
- Studies on living in the past vs the present
- Tips on how to stop living in the past
- Closing words
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
Mindfulness and living in the present
If you can’t stop living in the past, I’m going to assume that you’re reading this article because you want to know how to start living in the present. Living in the present – in the now – is strongly related to practicing mindfulness.
The “father” of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as:
“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Put simply, mindfulness is all about being here and now and suspending all judgment. In a way, it should come very naturally to humans, because physically, we have no other choice to be here and now.
However, a lot of people in the world have difficulties practicing mindfulness and living in the present. In fact, these disorders affect millions of people in the USA.
How living in the past can affect your happiness
An old Chinese legendary figure named Lao Tzu is often referenced for the following quote:
If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
People who are depressed are letting themselves suffer from things that happened in the past. As a result, they find it more difficult to enjoy the present and to be positive about the future. There is a lot of interesting research that can be used to pinpoint the exact cause of this.
Studies on living in the past vs the present
I managed to find quite some interesting research on the topics of living in the past and living in the present. As you might expect, living in the past is often correlated to negative factors on your mental health, while living in the present is related to positive effects.
Studies on living in the past
A lot of people that are stuck living in the past are suffering from a strong feeling of regret.
If you’re also feeling a lot of regret from your past decisions, the following might resonate with you. It turns out that living your current life with regrets from your past is not a good recipe for a happy life. In fact, your mental health is likely affected negatively if you’re finding yourself thinking the following thoughts:
- I should have…..
- I could have…
- I would have…
Or in other words, “shoulda coulda woulda”.
One study from 2009 examined the relations between regret, repetitive thought, depression and anxiety in a big telephone survey. Not surprisingly, they found the following conclusion:
Both regret and repetitive thought were associated with general distress, [but] only regret was associated with anhedonic depression and anxious arousal. Further, the interaction between regret and repetitive thought (i.e., repetitive regret) was highly predictive of general distress but not of anhedonic depression nor anxious arousal. These relations were strikingly consistent across demographic variables such as sex, race/ethnicity, age, education, and income.
In other words, if you’re constantly spending time thinking about what you should have done in the past, it is likely that it’s distressing your current outlook on life.
The findings of all these studies are beautifully encapsulated in the following quote by Eckart Tolle:
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future and not enough presence.
Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.
This is a passage from his book The Power Of Now, which is an interesting read for those who’d like to learn more about how to stop living in the past.
Studies on living in the present
There are a lot of studies about the benefits of living in the present. One of the benefits of being present is that you’ll enjoy an increased awareness of the things that are happening around you. In other words, when you’re not living in the past, you become more mindful of what’s happening around you right now.
The field of mindfulness has been the topic of many studies.
According to a 2012 paper, practicing mindfulness is related to greater emotion differentiation and less emotional difficulties in young adults. In another study, a short mindfulness intervention was shown to benefit emotion regulation on a neurobiological level – meaning that mindfulness can change how certain areas of the brain work.
In addition, living in the present isn’t just beneficial for your mental health. After all, it was first used for chronic physical pain. Research has found that besides pain, mindfulness interventions can be helpful in the case of clinical colds, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, and HIV.
This is just a small number of studies that are available on the benefits of living in the present and practicing mindfulness.
The takeaway here is that living in the past won’t get you any happier. In the meantime, living in the present correlates to many positive factors in life, like self-awareness, stress reduction and a better mindset to tackle challenges.
If you don’t need any more convincing on why living in the past is bad for you, then it’s time to move on to the next part of this article.
Tips on how to stop living in the past
Now that you know why it’s not a good idea to keep living in the past, you’re probably looking for actionable ways to start living in the present. Sure, it’s easy to see how being mindful is a potential solution to your problem, but how do you actually get there?
Here are some actionable tips that will get you started.
1. Write it down
I want you to start writing down what’s keeping you in the past.
Grab a piece of paper, put a date on it, and start writing down the reasons why you’re stuck in the past. Ask yourself why you’re finding it hard to stop regretting the past or worrying about the things that happened years ago. Then try to answer them as thoroughly as you can.
How can writing about your problems help you deal with them?
- Writing down your challenges forces you to confront them.
- It allows you to better deconstruct the issues without getting your thoughts distracted.
- Writing something down can prevent it from causing chaos in your head. Think of this as clearing the RAM memory of your computer. If you’ve written it down, you can safely forget about it and start with an empty slate.
- It will allow you to look back at your struggles objectively. In a few months’ time, you can look back at your notepad and see how much you’ve grown.
2. It is what it is
A part of living in the present is being able to say “it is what it is”. One of the best lessons you can learn in life is recognizing what you can change and what you can’t. If something is not within your circle of influence, why would you allow that thing to influence your current state of mind?
There are a ton of things that we have no control of:
- The health of your loved ones
- The weather
- Busy traffic
- Your genetics
- The actions of others (to a degree)
For example, I remember a time when I felt really – really – bad about hurting a friend in high school. He was always a good friend to me, and I mistreated him, so I started to feel like shit. I hated myself for a while because my mind was constantly regretting my past decisions. As a result, I was stressed and less happy at that time.
That was years ago, but if I could give myself one piece of advice, it would be this:
It is what it is
No one can ever change what has happened in the past. All we can change is how we deal with our current situation while moving forward.
If you look at it that way, you’ll see how sobbing and regretting won’t actually improve your situation. Instead, you can focus your energy on living in the present and improving your actions in the future. In my case, this meant that I eventually tried to be a good friend again, which ultimately improved my friendship and made me feel better as well.
You probably have examples of this in your own life. If you want to learn how to be more mindful, I recommend taking stock of what you can control or change. Make sure you understand the difference between having control over something and wanting to control something.
3. Know that you did the best you could with the information you had
Since regret is one of the emotions that keep us living in the past, it’s good to know how to best deal with this.
Regret often stems from a decision or action from the past, that in hindsight turned out to be the wrong one.
As an example, during one of the most stressful periods of my life, something really bad happened at work which I could have prevented. It was not my responsibility, but I could have prevented this thing from happening had I been more aware. Since the damage was very bad, this f*cked with my head for a long time.
- I should have done…
- I could have done…
- I would have done…
After a while, a colleague of mine told me something that clicked with me. It’s that I made all my actions with the best intentions, based on the information I had at the time. I never had the wrong intentions. Sure, my actions didn’t help prevent this horrible thing from happening, but I did the best I could with the information I had.
My colleague said to me:
If that’s all true, then why are you beating yourself up for it? Why are you allowing this to keep you down, while you couldn’t have known what was happening at the time?
While this example may not be applicable to your situation, it’s still a tip that I’ll never forget.
If you’re currently regretting something you’ve done – even though your actions were fueled with good intentions – then there’s no point in beating yourself up for it. There’s no point in blaming yourself. That’s a waste of energy, which is better spent on improving your future situation.
4. Don’t be afraid to take risks in the future
When researching more about this topic, I landed on this article about the most frequent deathbed regrets. It’s a fascinating story since it uncovers what most people regret the most as they are near the end of their lives. Here’s the gist of it:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. (this is a big one!)
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
When reading this article, I thought of another personal example that is very applicable to the subject of this article.
When I was a little kid, I was super afraid of talking to girls. And I mean, reaaaaally afraid. But there was one girl I had a crush on, yet I never told anyone about it, let alone her!
Well, it turned out that she had a crush on me as well, and she actually wrote me a valentine’s letter one day asking me to be her girlfriend. What did I do? I was too afraid to actually tell her that I liked her as well, so I didn’t do anything. Nothing at all. I continued to ignore and hide from her (and every other girl) like I was doing all along anyway since I was too shy.
For your information, I was about 8 years old at the time. I’ve since learned to laugh about this memory, but in the months following this event, my life was filled with regret. I couldn’t sleep at night, because I hated myself for not having the guts to actually talk to this girl.
You probably think this is a silly example, but I hope you see the point I’m trying to make here:
- Regret is often caused by not having the courage to make certain decisions
- That regret is then eating away at our mental health
- If you allow that regret to keep your thoughts in the past (I should have done …..), then you’re keeping yourself from finding happiness in the future.
That’s why the final tip of this article is to not be afraid to take risks in the future.
People on their deathbed don’t generally regret making wrong decisions. No! They regret not making any decision at all! Don’t allow regret to enter your life by not making decisions. Don’t be like the 8-year-old me, who was too afraid to tell a girl he liked her and regretted it for months after!
Happiness is not necessarily just a reward after years and years of hard work. It can also be the response to a simple activity that exploits our brain’s quirks and shortcuts. While working towards a long-term goal and making sacrifices to your emotional well-being is commendable, humans love instant gratification and we all deserve to enjoy the little things in life. Instead of 10 years, you can feel happier in 10 minutes, so go ahead and give it a try!
Do you want to share your own positive change that you applied in your life? Did I miss an awesome tip that you used to be happier in an instance? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 7 years.