January 31, 2014 6:41 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Is it better to focus on today or tomorrow?

‘Focusing on the long-term view doesn’t guarantee we’ll find meaning, just as focusing on the here and now doesn’t guarantee happiness’

The Shrink

Illustration of people building a house by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

“Is it better to focus on today or tomorrow?” asks a reader. The quick answer is that the ideal would be to strike a balance between the two, difficult though that may be – we want to enjoy the present as much as we can without making assumptions about the future but, at the same time, we don’t want to find ourselves at retirement age without some kind of pension provision.

However, it has become almost a truism that we should live more in the moment and worry less about things to come. But are we happier when we focus on the here and now?

Yes, says social psychologist Roy Baumeister – but that’s not the whole story. He co-authored a 2013 study which found that while there was a substantial overlap between happiness and meaningfulness, there were also interesting differences. One of them involved timeframe. “Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future,” he writes.

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The Shrink & The Sage

The study also found that happiness, unlike meaning, was associated with the satisfaction of desires, and that problems and stresses reduced happiness but not meaning. It makes sense: both chasing desires and avoiding stress go together with wanting to feel good now. Pursuing longer-term goals, on the other hand, involves a commitment to persevering with a project despite frustration and setbacks. It is these long-term goals, it seems, that bring most meaning to our lives.

Focusing on the long-term view doesn’t guarantee we’ll find meaning, just as focusing on the here and now doesn’t guarantee happiness. But it’s worth bearing in mind that staying with something valuable through thick and thin could give our lives a richness of meaning that we might choose over a happier existence.

As a devotee of Aristotle, I’ve long been convinced that a life can be flourishing without being full of happy moments. The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for people to look at the evidence that backs this up.

. . .

The Sage

When thinking about which temporal horizon we should fix our gazes upon, the past is usually given short shrift. Folk wisdom agrees: it’s spilt milk, water under the bridge, let the dead bury the dead, bygones be bygones and so on. The future is not so quickly dismissed but it usually ends up defeated by the present. After all, bridges can be crossed when we come to them; whatever will be, will be.

I find this competition somewhat artificial. It seems obvious that human beings ought to think in all three tenses. We are the product of our histories and what we go on to do will continue to shape our identities. Dwelling on or living in the past may be bad but reflecting on it is essential. Similarly, worrying too much about or living for the future is not the same as preparing for it. How we think about the different times of life matters, not simply which one of them we focus on.

Timescale also matters more than tense. Our reader contrasts the immediate today with the proximate tomorrow, but focusing on both is often preferable to gazing into the distant whenever. Thinking about the near future is essential preparation for making the most of each moment when it arrives. When you wake up, having already given thought to what you want or need to do, be it work or leisure, you tend to get more out of the day. Get up with no idea and it’s surprising how easy it is for the slate still to be blank at day’s end.

Living purely in the moment is not all it’s cracked up to be. We are not like most other animals, which only inhabit the present. At the same time, we are not gods or angels and so must not delude ourselves that we have all the time in the world, and beyond it. Thinking about both today and tomorrow, therefore, seems the perfect way to keep our minds within an authentically human timeframe – one which extends over time, but not indefinitely, and for who knows how much longer.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.

To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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