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Being content focuses on the present, striving for happiness wastes it

These days we’re encouraged to ‘live for today’ and ‘enjoy the moment.’ It’s one of life's biggest cliches, and one that was actually quite difficult to follow pre-pandemic when things were ‘normal’.

Living in a fast-paced world makes everything all about the future: where we’re going, what we’re aiming for and how fast we can get there.

Now it’s completely different. We’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slow everything down, reflect and appreciate the small things in life. Being able to actually live in the moment might be one of the rare upsides of the lockdown.

As it turns out, this cliche of living in the moment is backed up by science

According to a Harvard study, people are happiest when exercising, socialising and in conversation. I suppose this comes as no surprise since we’re naturally sociable creatures. Speaking for myself, there’s few things that I enjoy more than the company of friends and a bottle of red.

Based on this new perspective, is it right to focus on the future so intently, believing that happiness will come our way once achieving X,Y and Z? Or could that be impacting our potential for contentment in the present?

This fallacy of assuming that happiness can be bought or consumed may be what’s preventing us from getting what we truly want in life. As Killingsworth and Gilbert eloquently put it in their study, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” alluding that true contentment can be found when focusing on the present.

Perhaps happiness isn’t what we should be aiming for, and instead… maybe it should be contentment.

The truth is life is short and many of us are travelling at over 100 mph

From start to finish, most of our daily routines are geared towards fulfilling an overarching ambition we have. Most of the time it’s about sacrificing the present for the future, or more specifically, a better one.

A BMW. A villa. A holiday in the south of France. A promotion. £1 million. These are all luxuries that many of us strive for, believing that once we get there, all the jigsaw pieces of our happiness will fall into place. It’s a nice fantasy but I think here’s the truth… when that happens your experience will be moderated because you’ll be fixated on another goal.

It’s an endless pursuit that locks us in this hamster wheel where our efforts fail to move us closer to what we really want, which isn’t necessarily anything materialistic, but more just happiness.

Once we get to the top of the mountain we’re climbing, the euphoria won’t last forever. Very quickly we’ll look to the next one to climb. Wouldn’t it then be better to stop, take in our surroundings and enjoy the view?

I don’t think this is such a bad idea. When you live in the moment and forget about the future for a moment, you’re not wasting the present. As I write this in the comfort of my home, with the rugby on in the background and my two boys handing me their favourite book to read them, I can appreciate everything for what it is - not in terms of it being a ‘mere’ steppingstone to something else.

When you think of it like that, it seems only right to ‘honour’ those things rather than dismiss them, which I think is what happens when we’re continually striving for more.

Have goals but enjoy the journey

Of course, this isn’t to say we should neglect our ambitions and focus solely on the present. Absolutely not. We need goals because they give us a direction, a sense of purpose and an opportunity to build a better future for ourselves.

But I think we need a balance. By tipping the scales more in favour of the present, we get to have the best of both worlds. Because we’re not wasting the present striving for a future that doesn’t yet exist.

Maybe we should stop asking ourselves “What makes me happy?” and start asking “What makes me content?” This helps think of happiness as a permanent state. And if we can find contentment, then the happiness that comes from achieving more will be a bonus.

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