Distorted by the present

Enlightened minds often talk about living in the present moment.

However, one persistent feature of our mind is for our present to colour our view of our past and our future. Dan Gilbert in Stumbling in Happiness, talks about how what we feel in the present moment distorts our perspective of both the past the future. When middle aged people are asked about their political views, their thoughts about pre-marital sex and how much liquor they drank when they were in college, their answers are influenced by how they feel, think and drink now. Future scenarios predicted by futurists across decades are striking in how much they resemble the predictor’s present in each era.

One more distinguishing feature of our present experience is the powerful illusion that plays us straight into the hands of the instant gratification monkey. A blueberry tart feels good now as it bathes our mouths with its sugary flavour, and our brains with hormones. Exercise as it happens, is painful. Our muscles stiffen up in protest for being withdrawn without notice from a warm and toasty bed into the cold and frigid morning.

How each of those experiences feel in the moment do not reflect how they would make us feel for the rest of the day. The tart’s sugar rush is bound to wear off, leaving us feel depleted (and therefore drawing us to more junk food). Exercise boosts our mood and keeps us more energetic throughout the day. Yet, in the present moment, we are blind to those consequences. Instead, we make a linear extrapolation of how a tart would continue to feel good and exercise would continue to make us feel horrible, even when the opposite is true.

Living in the present moment is to not just prevent the past and the future steal the fleeting joy of the present. It is also to prevent the present from spilling into our past or the future.

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