All the self-help gurus tell us all the time that we need to “live in the moment.” They say happiness comes from focusing on the present and not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
I get it. I do.
And I agree that sitting around crying over past mistakes and the people who’ve done you wrong gets you nowhere (trust me—I did it myself for years, so I know).
And fretting over the future can paralyze you. If you really let yourself stop and think about all the millions of terrible things that might happen (and how unlikely it is that good ones will happen instead), you’d be too terrified to climb out of bed in the morning.
So, sure. Living in the moment is a good idea. But it also has a downside. Hear me out.
A few blocks away, in the town where I live, there’s an apartment building where a number of “economically challenged” people live.
Often, on one of our walks, my dog Rosco and I will see them all sitting outside on the dilapidated stoop, smoking, chatting, and enjoying an adult beverage. In fact, they enjoy a LOT of adult beverages. Every recycling pickup day, they put out three massive cans all overflowing with empty cans of beer. That’s one entire can for each of the three residents of the building.
They’re friendly folks, and they seem to have a great time day to day. Somehow, they always seem to have plenty of liquor and smokes, and there’s a little party going on pretty much every evening, as long as it’s not raining outside.
The thing is: By the end of the month, the electric company has cut off their service for lack of payment and the landlord has to call in the police to mediate a screaming fight over the rent, which is still unpaid even though it was due way back on the first of the month.
Watching this scene unfold (month after month, never changing), I can’t help but think that sometimes, living in the moment can make you lose sight of the things that are more important in the long run. And I think it’s hard to argue that having running water and electricity is ultimately more essential to daily life than having enough beer and cigarettes.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge these people the pleasures they’re seeking. I’ve been poor myself. Truth is, I’m still poor now. I know all too well how much you need a treat now and then when you’re struggling so hard just to survive.
But when you let your life be nothing BUT a treat, when you live only in the moment, you end up hurting yourself—and maybe the world around you, too. Because when you focus on the present moment—enjoying the pleasures at hand without a thought to what comes next—you’re like a leaf floating on a stream: drifting along without rhyme, reason, or purpose.
And no matter what the self-help books say, TRUE happiness comes from having meaning in your life—something you can only really gain if you live in the present while also keeping an eye on your goals for the future.