How the Past and Future Cause Unhappiness and Anxiety
Everyone in this world wants to live a life that has as little unhappiness, regret, anxiety and worry as possible. The one thing that all of us have in common is a desire to be happy. Nobody likes being unhappy or worried, yet so many people in this world display all the symptoms.
Why is it that a great number of us, despite truly wanting to be happy and worry-free, are so unhappy, regretful, anxious, and full of worry? Why does lasting happiness and peace seem so difficult to attain for many of us?
My answer is less complicated than you might think. I believe that the reason is because so many people are spending a great portion of their lives thinking about the past and the future rather than the present moment.
One of the unique characteristics of human beings is that we talk to ourselves all the time. This internal voice rarely shuts up and is a great story-teller. The voice is really our restless and rambunctious mind creating stories about our past or the future. Our restless minds love attention! If we are not aware of what we are thinking about, we are in essence allowing our minds to control us rather than us controlling them. Thoughts are just thoughts. We do not have to get caught up with them and allow them to rule. Thoughts do not represent us.
Let’s first examine the past. All of us have made mistakes, made bad choices, been hurt, rejected, taken advantage of, as well as hurt others in the past. Nobody has a past that is blemish-free and untainted. Imperfection is part of being human.
Our imperfect pasts provide us with valuable lessons from which we can learn to become better people. The mistakes and hurt that we experienced in the past make us wiser and more experienced. They teach us in a way that no textbook can.
Despite this, the past is gone forever. We can never regain or change it no matter how hard we try. Yet so many people allow their minds to constantly ruminate about the past, rehash old mistakes, hurt and pain, and spin stories about our previous experiences. It is as if we are replaying an old movie in our head over and over again.
Repeated thinking about our past events and experiences is the main cause for almost all unhappiness, regret, anger, hate (self-hate and hate towards others), bitterness, and resentment. Think about it for a second: whenever you experience any of these negative feelings, it will almost always pertain to an event or situation that occurred in the past. That little movie player in our heads is replaying negative events and we keep getting caught up in that movie.
Here are a few examples of replaying past negative events in our heads that you might relate to:
- I am angry at my parents for not making me feel more loved
- I am still hurt that my first girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with me and found someone new
- I hate that kid in school who bullied me and wish I could exact revenge
- I regret not doing better in school and that means I will never amount to anything
- I am so angry and bitter that my best friend lied to me
- I could have been a better parent and feel guilty for not treating my kids better
- My father always criticized me and I was never good enough for him
- I abused food and now am destined to stay fat and unhealthy
I can go on, but the important point is to realize that almost all unhappiness, anger, guilt, and hate can be attributed to our minds rehashing past events or circumstances. These events and situations have already occurred and there is absolutely nothing we can do about them. But many people replay them in their heads consistently without realizing it.
Interestingly enough, most people who harbor feelings of anger, resentment, regret and unhappiness are not actually experiencing any negative event or situation presently. Their present life is pretty problem free. However, their minds are conjuring up stories and replaying the past, and that is the source of the unpleasant feelings.
Now let’s take a closer look at the future. Thinking about future events and consequences is paramount to human survival. We need to protect ourselves from danger and, therefore, anticipate or fear certain situations or events before they occur. It is what protected our ancestors from being eaten by the lion.
We look both ways before we cross the street because we know that the consequences of not doing so can be dangerous. We avoid dark alleys at night, we drive carefully, we see our doctor when we do not feel well, we save money for the future, we study for the difficult exam, and we protect our children from all sorts of harm. This form of thinking about the future serves us well and keeps us safe. It motivates us to act in a productive way now in order to prevent a bad situation or circumstance from occurring in the future.
Unfortunately, many people do not know where to draw the line. They worry constantly and are always anxious and fearful about what may or may not happen in the future. They imagine the worst possible scenarios and dwell on them constantly. This causes chronic anxiety and stress in their lives. Very often, these imagined negative events and situations never occur.
Constant worry, fear and anxiety do not help prevent the future event from happening. We can only do our best in the present moment and accept the consequences. Worry and anxiety only raise our cortisol and adrenalin levels while simultaneously increasing our blood pressure. They are futile because they only cause us stress and do not affect the future. Only action in the present moment can do that.
Here are a few examples of worrying and anxiety about the future that you might relate to:
- I do not know if he or she will like me
- I am so worried that it will rain on my birthday and mess up my plans
- I think my boss might fire me
- The bad economy means that I will never find a job
- I will always be overweight and have no friends
- This business I started is bound to fail
- I will never find a partner who loves me
- I am afraid of dying
Worrying and being anxious about any of the above examples do not enrich your life. They only affect your quality of life in a negative way. Our minds love wandering into the future and making up negative stories that may or may not occur. In most cases, we can do nothing about the future and, when we can, it involves taking action in the current moment. Constant worry and anxiety can make us go crazy.
As I mentioned before, the solution to unhappiness and anxiety is to be present. This is often referred to as mindfulness, consciousness, and awareness. This entails focusing our minds on the present moment instead of the past or the future. Being present in the current moment is magical and liberating.
Think about this: what pressing problems do you have in this present moment? I am not suggesting that your life is idyllic or perfect, but what dire situation are you experiencing in this current moment? If being completely honest with themselves, most people would admit that their current situation is relatively problem-free. They have shelter and food. Their lives are probably not in danger right at this moment. They have choices available when it comes to what actions they would like to take in the current moment. Even when we plan for the future and set goals (and this is necessary sometimes), we do it in the current moment. The other alternative is to allow our minds to keep on generating and reliving issues, and that is no fun at all.
I used to be guilty of focusing my mind unconsciously on the past and the future. Consequently, I experienced a lot of sadness, hurt, anger, and regret associated with past events and circumstances. I also used to worry excessively about the future and it made me highly anxious. All this changed when I researched and learned about mindfulness and being present. It offered me a sense of freedom that I had never experienced before. I am still learning to stay grounded in the present. I sometimes do think unnecessarily about my past and also worry about the future, but I have managed to substantially reduce the frequency and length of time that I spend doing it before I bring my mind back to the present moment. I am getting better at recognizing when my restless mind starts to wander and arresting it before I start to get caught up in the stories and negativity.
The present moment is the only time that we really have. The past is gone forever and the future is uncertain. The only moment we have power over is the current moment. Accepting that we do not have control over certain situations or events is one of the keys to happiness and peace. Most people spend a great majority of their time focusing their attention on the past or the future while the present moment passes them by and gets lost forever. Not only does this cause unhappiness, regret, anger, worry, and anxiety, it also prevents them from enjoying truly enjoyable moments that are unfolding right before their eyes in the present moment. As a result of this, many people do not enjoy or appreciate the wonderful meal they are eating, the time they are spending with their loved ones, the gorgeous sunrise outside their windows, the beautiful music that is playing on the radio, the sound of children laughing, or soothing nature surrounding them. Their minds are always somewhere else, but never focused on the present.
How to Be More Present and Mindful
1. Focus on what you are doing
One of the best ways to become more present is to practice focusing your attention on the task at hand. When you are washing the dishes, keep your focus on that action and, every time your mind wanders to the past or future, gently bring your attention back to what you are doing. If you are walking, focus on your feet making contact with the ground, your stride, and your surroundings. When you are having a conversation with someone, focus all your attention on listening intently and being present rather than thinking about what you are going to say later on. When you are working on a spreadsheet, give it all your attention. When you eat an apple, focus on the taste, smell, texture, and feel of the apple. When you read a book, focus on what you are reading. Whenever you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your attention back to the task at hand. With constant practice, you will get better at being more mindful and enjoy the freedom it brings.
2. Monotask rather than multitask
Rather than trying to perform multiple tasks at the same time, do one thing and focus your attention on it. Numerous studies have shown that you will do a better job and also be happier and less stressed if you do.
3. Take time to listen to your body
Another great way to become more mindful and present is to take timeouts to just sit and pay attention to your body. Notice how your whole body feels, soften yourself and release tension, and observe any sensations or feelings in your body. This practice is sometimes called body-scanning and it helps to train our minds to focus on the present moment. Again, when your mind strays (and it almost certainly will), gently bring your attention back to your body without any judgement. Just observe.
4. Involve all your senses
When you are doing something, practice using all your senses. If you are in nature, use your sense of smell, touch, feel, hearing, and taste to fully experience what you are doing. You can apply this to almost any situation, for example when you are drinking your tea or coffee or cooking.
5. Meditate regularly
Most meditation practice involves focusing on one thing and truly experiencing it. For example, sit down somewhere comfortable every morning and focus on your breathing. Your mind will wander, especially if it is untrained, but, the moment you notice it, you become mindful. Then gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Do not judge your thoughts. Simply notice them and return your focus to your breath.
The more you practice any of the above methods, the better you will get at staying present. It is important to practice this regularly, every day if possible. You can also practice it multiple times a day and experience amazing results. The more effort you put into it, the quicker you will see results and the more significant the results will be.
You deserve to be happy, at peace, and free from worry and anxiety. The way to do that is to be mindful and focus your mind on the present moment. It is a choice that all of us have.