Happiness doesn't live in the past
Do you think we’re happier or sadder in today’s world?
Whenever I trigger my mother to talk about what life was like when she was a kid, the description consistently includes being “happier” about the way things used to be. I get it, to a point. A lot of the serendipity you could experience around the 90s and before feels impossible now. Today, we generally have fewer friends, we rely more on online connections, and most people have little chance to retire by their 40s—and even fewer to do so without drowning in bills and debt. Even one of the greatest considered paradoxes in American life now is that while our existence has become more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.
In 2019, the average US household income was higher than ever. New American homes are over 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. Living space has nearly doubled on average. More people have access to the internet and social media. But amid these advances in our quality of life, our average happiness is decreasing. I’m aware there’s a “happiness inequality” across all countries; the United States, of course, doesn’t speak for the world. There’s quite a spread in the answers, and while it doesn’t apply to all countries, researchers of the World Happiness Report found that generally, lower happiness inequality was linked to a higher average happiness score. So, more equal and fairer societies tend to be happier.
While we used to be happier than we are now, it’s not to say that life is actually worse in today’s world—wonderful things are happening now that were impossible before—it’s possible that we’re simply more uninformed about the amazing progress we are making over the decades. We tend to struggle to notice progress very well—or, we’re measuring the wrong indicators of happiness and our “quality of life”. And this is what I wanted to touch on.
The past can’t make us truly happy; it only serves as a memory to determine whether we perceive something in the present as positive or negative. Everyone likes to live in the past from time to time, but personally, I’ve found it very damaging. Constantly thinking about what life used to be like can make us subconsciously resent where we are now—and we get stuck comparing two completely different events, thinking they should be the same.
We think joyfully of our childhood years and go back to how much “easier” or “simpler” it was back then. Even as a teenager. It’s normal. But when you find yourself sharing old stories with your friends every time you meet over drinks, it’s a sign to stop and think about it for a minute.
Why am I always talking about the past?
Am I not happy with the present?
The past can’t hurt you anymore. Not unless you let it. They made you into a victim (…) They made you into a statistic. But, that's not the real you. That's not who you are inside.
— Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta
Sometimes it’s the other way around. For some people, the past can be riddled with trauma that they seemingly can’t shake—or they don’t try to. If you find yourself constantly thinking of a golden or dark past, it’s probable that you’re not happy with the present. You’re instead letting something that no longer exists control a lot of things that do (your aspirations, relationships, money, wellbeing).
Maybe you were once more successful in your job, or maybe you found the girl of your dreams and had the “perfect” relationship. Maybe you earned a lifetime award in sports or academia that changed your life and defined your self-confidence and self-worth. The past shines can shine brightly and it justifiably feels good to return to it over and over again because the present feels unsatisfactory or utterly disappointing. But think about why that is.
Self-mastery is about removing overstayed memories about the past that have a negative or zero-sum effect on your future. When your present doesn’t match your expectations because you’re weighing it against your past, the thought alone can be pretty crippling.
Ever heard these statements before, starting with I should/I shouldn’t:
I should have been a successful…
I wish we had these opportunities back then…
I shouldn’t have turned down that job offer/person…
Psychologists say these can cause increased panic, anxiety and depression, and that should statements are cognitive distortions.
They’re ways our mind convinces us of something that’s not really true. Inaccurate thoughts that usually reinforce negative thinking or emotions—telling ourselves things that sound rational and realistic, but really, only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
shoulds and shouldn’ts are ironclad rules we use to punish ourselves, to make ourselves feel guilt and shame about how far we haven’t come. But that’s a lie.
People are often less happy in life because they struggle to see that they’ve come much further than they think. Consumeracy, bureaucracy, and technocracy in today’s world also promised greater satisfaction. But instead, it gave us instant gratification and continuous dissatisfaction. Leading to suffering.
But a part of self-mastery is mastering the art of letting suffering go, even when it’s a positive memory of the past that’s hurting our present. Then, you’ll come to realise how unnecessary it was to drag those burdens around with you, controlling your present and future. And you’ll see that it’s nobody else’s responsibility than your own.
Decisions, not mistakes
The first step to self-mastery (or mastery in anything) is awareness. It heals, it helps you break the emotional barrier of should statements or any challenge you’re about to face.
People think of their past in terms of mistakes, and you may be doing the same. But learn to see them not as mistakes, but as decisions.
You never set out to make bad decisions—no one does.
You made good decisions. Because at that particular time, the reasons behind your decisions were correct; it’s what you wanted based on the information you had at that moment. Realising this is freeing, and empowering.
The best way to move away from the past hurting your future and to apologise for bad actions in the past is by prioritising your actions in the present. They’re the things you can control, and it’s important to make peace with that.
Make peace with yourself, and your past. Don’t dwell on it.
Acknowledge your skills and talents.
Learn from your strengths and weaknesses.
Get yourself unstuck in the present.
Start imagining your future and begin crafting a life that perfectly shapes it.
What I’ve Learned
Here are some more things I’ve learned this week.
Too much research is harmful
Some people love to classify research as a hard day of work, and with fair reason. But it’s important to ask yourself at times whether your reading and research are complementing your actions or substituting for them.
The value of questions
Sometimes I feel wrong for asking a lot of questions. Sometimes I don’t give a damn. But Neil Postman’s quote reminds me why questions are one of the most valuable tools to have:
“Once you have learned to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substation questions— you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
The power of small acts
Making a difference in someone’s life is one of the most beautiful acts there is. Not because it’s nice for you, but because not only do you impact their life, you impact everyone influenced by them throughout their entire lifetime. As poet Danielle Doby says:
“No act is ever too small. One by one, this is how to make an ocean rise.”
One Question for You
What hobby or habit is giving you the most happiness?
Until next week,
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