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Is Our Recipe For Happiness Making Us Sad?

For the past 50 years or so, the favoured mantra among the mindfulness and wellness community has been 'live in the moment'. 'Be present' we're told. But what if they've got it wrong?
Wooden kitchenware on cutting board abstract food background
udra via Getty Images
Wooden kitchenware on cutting board abstract food background

For the past 50 years or so, the favoured mantra among the mindfulness and wellness community has been 'live in the moment'. Be present (insert multiple exclamation points) we're told.

Since yoga and meditation was popularised in the West in the '70s, we've been in the throes of 'present-mania'. Books like Eckhart Tolle's The Power Of Now and gurus like Deepak Chopra have flooded the market. We need to be here, in the now, in this very moment. Stop thinking, stop reflecting, stop cogitating. Just be present.

Our social media accounts are flooded with the 'now' rhetoric on a daily basis. We see multiple versions of the message in their feed on an daily basis -- "just breathe" or "you are here" or "live the moment" -- a speedy Google search will yield many variables.

The idea of being present and the need for us to be present to enjoy our lives has become an ingrained part of our collective consciousness. Once you have a cultural juggernaut like Oprah espousing the idea, then there's really no turning back. It's out there -- one giant 'be present!' slogan hanging over each of our heads like we're trapped in some Eckhart-Tolle comic strip.

But what if they got it wrong? What if being present is a false lead? What if "being present" is actually leading us to unhappiness?

Embarking on my doctorate on happiness and the advertising industry has meant I've read a whole heap of content on happiness. How to become happy, whether or not happiness is achievable day-in, day-out, and, of course, should we really be made slaves to happiness? Is it the emotion we should be holding primary within the emotional spectrum?

A happiness industry has sprung up around us. Go to any bookstore and you'll discover a whole shelf or stand devoted to the topic -- and off-shoots of it, like wellness and mindfulness. We are drugged by the notion that we should be at Station Happiness, and will get on any train that might lead there.

Many writers and psychologists have distilled the core ingredients of happiness -- a bit like a happiness chocolate cake, or maybe a happiness gin and tonic. Add these ingredients (five to a hundred, depending on the author) and you'll likely be happy (caveat on 'likely', because most studies indicate that our capacity to be happy and mindful is largely genetic).

One of the key ingredients identified in the research is the ability to look back on the past with rose-coloured glasses.

That's right. No present, no now -- the past.

As Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer once said: "Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory." Studies indicate recalling past events, such as weddings, children's birthdays or a night out on the town with the lads and ladies are the times when we actually experience that fleeting sense of happiness. In fact, the recollection of the event can produce happier emotions than the actual event.

In the moment, you might be afflicted by your shoes pinching your feet, or the fact that you're sweating profusely, or any other minor mishap that might inhibit your ability to enjoy the present. But, later, recalling that night out with your best friend gives you that warm, familiar sense of... yes you've got it, happiness.

But it flies in the face of the 'now-ers'. The 'present-ers'. The 'just breathe-ers'.

Here's another piece of evidence. Happiness psychologist and writer, Robert Biswas-Diener, wrote in 2014: "Overall, people who are the happiest tend to be superior at sacrificing short-term pleasures when there is a good opportunity to make progress towards what they aspire to become in life."

That's the future element, which the now-ers would argue doesn't really exist. Sure, they are right in that interpretation, but studies show those who have a purpose and are striving towards a particular lifestyle, job or dream, are actually the happiest. It's that purpose which gives them a reason and a solid sense of duty.

Now-ers would also have you believe that thinking is the root of evil. Our brain rules us, they would say. An endless torrent of not-very-useful thought that distracts us from the present and very often points us in the wrong direction. In The Power Of Now, Tolle tells us "the compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness, in an insanely complex world of continuous problems and conflict, a world that reflects the ever-increasing fragmentation of the mind."

I agree that overthinking is a chronic issue, but most Western philosophy would tell us that thinking is, in fact, part of what separates us from the rest -- what makes us human (Descartes' I think, therefore I am, for example).

We need to be able to consider our past and future, and be curious and inquisitive of the things that come in between... and there's no curiosity without thought.

Now-ers, I don't discredit the theory that being present is a useful state of being, but I do discredit the notion that it's the only state of being. Without our thoughts, the past, the future and curiosity, where would we find ourselves? Wouldn't it be the incorporation of all these elements that would lead us to a more-satisfying life?

What strikes me about the happiness and wellness industry is that it manages to capture us with a slogan. It's similar to a diet really. Often we're distracted by the next juice cleanse, and a nutritionist or dietician would likely tell us that these sloganistic paths are not valid.

But is 'now' the newest mindfulness diet fad? Isn't it time we included the power of the past and the future the happiness equation too?

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