“Hold to the now, the here. The moment through which all future plunges to the past.”
This quote encapsulates good advice that positive psychologists have now confirmed has a solid, scientific basis.
Countless research studies demonstrate that the more rooted in present we are able to be, the more absorbed we are in our daily tasks and activities, the happier we become. A fast pace of life, being 'time poor' and constant multi-tasking characterize what life in the 21st century developed world has become for many of us. It can leave little room for being truly engaged. So often when we are doing something, our mind's really on other things. But why is this?
From a young age, when we enter formal education, we tend to be encouraged to focus on outcomes rather than processes. What matters is the marks we get, not the journey towards understanding, or why we made certain mistakes. This is one of the reasons why as we grow older, we develop a mindset that resists being content with and absorbed in the present moment, but instead fixes on the future and on the tasks that lie ahead.
Mass media advertising has possibly played a role in our changing concept of pleasure and enjoyment. As humans we have an innate ability to find interest in our surroundings, to use our imagination and create absorbing distractions for ourselves. This ability is often under-used though. From the advent of television onwards, we have been encouraged to do less and less to entertain ourselves and learnt to rarely increasingly on passive and bought entertainment. So what can be done about this?
Scientific studies have revealed that the more we certainly cultivate engagement, the better we become at it, like exercising a muscle. In this way we can relearn the ability to be anchored in the here and now. It's an ability that comes naturally to us as young children but becomes weakened and lost due to cultural and environmental factors.
Positive psychology highlights several proven approaches to boosting our ability to engage: saving, flow and meditation.
Savoring is consciously using each of our five senses to fully immerse ourselves in experiences as they happen. We do this by slowing down and not rushing through our tasks on autopilot. Savoring is opening our eyes and ears, being acutely alert to the taste, touch and smell of things. Whether it is cooking a meal, taking a shower or walking to the bus stop, everyday life is wall to wall with experiences we could savor more.
Flow is an intense feeling of engagement. It's the type of engagement that causes us to lose all track of time. We experience flow when we are occupied with a 'goldilocks task' – one that's not too easy (that would be boring), and not too hard (that would be stressful), but is just right and perfectly matches our own skill levels. Gardening, DIY, crafts, sports, writing, reading, creating artwork are just a few of the things we can do to experience flow. If we purposefully set aside time in our week for a few flow tasks, we are building engagement into our lives.
Meditation is a practice that takes many forms. Broadly speaking it falls into two camps: mindfulness based meditation and concentrative meditation. Mindfulness based meditation wastes spending extended periods of time (5 minutes or more) disengaging from your thoughts processes, ie you 'watch' your thoughts come and go, like clouds driving through the sky but do not get caught up with them. Instead you focus your attention on your unfolding sense experience. ie the things that you can smell, see, touch, taste and hear at that time. Concentration meditation also takes a step back from your thoughts, but by focusing intentionally on a single thing such as a candle flame, your breath or chanting a mantra of one or a few words over and over again. Studies demonstrate that daily mediation increases our ability to engage, to experience positive emotions and also strengthens the immune system.
Whiche approach or combination of approaches you take to increasing your engagement with life, it is an investment that will pay great dividends in terms of your happiness and life satisfaction. Simply savoring a few things that you'd normally rush, making a list of the things that give you flow and then doing them more, or trying out meditation could be the first step in the direction of a calmer and more fulfilling life.