When the undergraduates I teach at Northwestern University graduate, I tell them that the best years of their lives are yet to come. But that comes with a catch: In order to make what’s to come the best it can be, they have to stop thinking so much about their future and start living in the present. Why? Because our happiness corresponds directly with how effectively we can live in the current moment. I’ve seen time and time again that those who live in the future tend to suffer from anxiety. And those who live in the past tend to suffer from depression, shame, and guilt. It’s about living in the present and taking charge of your happiness now.
Those who live in the future feel as though they’re waiting for their lives to begin. They are constantly saying things like: “Once the quarter ends, I’ll be happy,” “Once I’m in a relationship, I’ll be happy, “Once I find a job, I’ll be happy,” or “Once I lose 10 pounds, I’ll be happy.” Those who live in the past are constantly asking themselves, “What if this had happened instead?” If you’re one of those people, this must stop now. The key to true internal happiness is to stop chaining that happiness to your external surroundings. Your happiness starts the moment you claim it. And you can claim it by insisting on it each and every day. Look for beauty. Look for goodness. Look for the silver lining. Every day. It is amazing how much beauty can be found even in the midst of mess and stress.
This does not mean pasting a smile on your face and acting happy when you are sad. That’s just fake, and frankly, it’s kind of creepy. Instead, try inhabiting your emotions fully—the positive and the negatives. Trust me, the negative ones tend to pass more quickly when you just let yourself feel them rather than resisting them.
For many, this is easier said than done. To help you on your path toward living in the moment, try keeping a gratitude journal. In it, write down five things you’re grateful for each day. (For the tech savvy, there’s even an app for that: http://getgratitude.co/) Research shows that this very simple exercise can help prevent and reduce depression.
I can guarantee that if you strive to live in the present, accepting what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it, you’ll experience yourself as more open-hearted, calm, and whole. On that note, I’ll leave you with a quote from a gifted spiritual teacher named Byron Katie: “When I argue with reality, I lose… but only 100% of the time.”