One of the keys to happiness is living in the present: being mindful of what is happening now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. That said, the present is not always happy. Sometimes, the now is excruciatingly painful, whether it be physically or emotionally. Ironically in those situations, it feels impossible to escape the present and it feels like the suffering will be endless.
But to quote author John Green from his novel Turtles All The Way Down:
“Your now is not your forever.”
No matter how bleak the outcome may look, there will almost always be a glimmer of hope. Wounds heal with time, we can adapt to harsh environments and we can grow strong to overcome our challenges. Things can change for the better if given the chance and with effort, no matter how impossible it may seem at the time.
So the next time you feel helplessly stuck in the now, remind yourself that this too shall pass. It will not solve your immediate problems, but it may give you a touch of strength to help endure the hard times, even if it is one day at a time.
You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.
This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.
Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.
The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?
Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.
Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.
Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.
Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:
“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”
When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.
These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.
The end of the year is as good a time as any to reflect on the days that have been and who you are now. Time to reflect is hard to come by, as life keeps us busy and on our feet constantly. But that is not enough of an excuse. We are defined by our experiences and connections, meaning that we are constantly changing to some degree. If we do not reflect, we cannot learn from our mistakes, or know what direction we are heading in because we lose sight of what we need or what is truly important to us.
Reflections can take many forms and everyone will have their own preferred style. But if you are not used to it, try the following method. If you cannot recall the last time you truly reflected on yourself, then you should definitely give reflection a try before greeting the new year.
First, consider the past.
What were the highlights of the year? When were the moments you struggled through? What relationships were made, changed or broken? This is an important step as we take inventory of all of the experiences, emotions, connections, hardships and things we learned – that is, the ingredients that you are made of. Only then can we process how these things affected us.
A loss or an ordeal may traumatise us, but they make us more resilient as we remember that despite the grief and stress, we survived. Wonderful memories remind us of the things we should be grateful for. Moments that we are proud of remind us how much we have grown. If we do not reflect on the past, you might as well have wasted the year, because it would not have added to your life in any way.
Second, consider the present.
How are you feeling right now? Are you miserable and confused, unsure of who you are and where to go from here? Or are you content and happy with how things are going? How is your relationship with your loved ones and, most importantly, with yourself? What concerns hang around in the back of your mind? What kind of person are you right now, and is it the kind of person you wanted to become? What is most important to you at the moment?
The present is a fleeting moment between the infinite past and future, but it is just as important, because we live in it. This is who you are. Too often, we are so preoccupied by our past mistakes or grand dreams of the future that we lose track of who we are right now. Make sure you have a good understanding of the present you, so that you have a solid anchor for your future self.
Lastly, consider the future. You don’t have to have the rest of your life planned out, but it is always good to have some idea of the general direction you want to head towards in the coming year. What are the things you want to leave in the past? What are the things you want to carry forward, or improve upon? What are some things you are looking forward to? What changes should you be making for your happiness? What kind of person do you want to grow up to become?
The future is wild and unpredictable. We cannot possibly know what surprises await us there: happiness, sadness, madness, death. So there is no point being anxious or afraid of the future. All we can do is be prepared by having the skills and resilience to survive through whatever the future may throw at us. Hopefully, it will be an enjoyable ride.
If this is too difficult to do just in your head, try writing a letter to two people: you from the start of this year, and you from the end of next year.
To your past self, tell them the stories from this year, the person you have become and how they will be alright.
To your future self, tell them to leave your bad habits and worries behind, while moving forward with the good connections and positive habits you have cultivated. Writing things down is a good way to process these complex reflections.
At the end of the day, it does not matter how you go about it, as long as you have given some thought about your life. Life is not a movie that we watch from a couch with a bowl of popcorn. It is your personal adventure full of decisions, actions and consequences. We cannot let it pass by like a TV show. Instead, we need to be conscious of the role we play in our own lives and actively try to make the most of it.
One of the biggest lies told to us by the world is that of the happy ending. Almost every fairy tale (modern versions, at least) ends with a happily ever after, as do many books and movies. In spite of all the twists, conflicts and climaxes, we are told that everything will be okay once you achieve your goal, whether that is finding the hidden treasure, heroically winning a battle or marrying your true love.
With this in mind, young people fight hard to achieve their goals, as we believe that once we succeed, we will be happy for the rest of our lives. To do this, some people sacrifice their health and time with their loved ones to advance their career. Some people will rush to find a partner to settle down with, so they can fulfil their dream of getting married and owning a house. Others will focus all of their energy accumulating wealth for the future, even if it means not spending a single dime that is deemed unnecessary. Whether it is professionally, romantically or financially, we often cling to the idea that success is a finish line that can be crossed, while happiness awaits on the other side.
But life is not like the movies. We dream of beautiful weddings, but soon realise that it is not a happy ending; it is the beginning of an arduous journey requiring much sacrifice and compromise. We learn that even with all the possessions and wealth in the world, human greed always craves for something more. Unlike the movies, life does not cut to the credits once you succeed in one thing. It is a series of events that goes on and on until you die. No matter how much you succeed, there is always the possibility of failure.
The issue with the idea of happy endings is that it defines happiness as a reward at the end of a quest. This is a lie. Happiness is not something you attain, but a way of life. It is a state, much like flying, where forces outside of your control will try to pull you down from it, but you can push yourself back up with the right tools and skills. You have to fuel yourself with sustainable sources of happiness, such as connections and passions. As a bird must keep flapping its wings every now and then to remain in the air, one must continue to nurture and maintain their own happiness.
They say that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, then you feed him for a lifetime. Instead of giving children the false promise of happy endings, we should be teaching them how to journey through life with a happy state of mind.
“I always had this idea that you should never give up a happy middle in the hopes of a happy ending, because there is no such thing as a happy ending. Do you know what I mean? There is so much to lose.”