The Happiness of Pursuit

Cognitive science for the trip of your life

Gateway Drugs for the Masses

How "living the moment" relates to individual development and social progress

As we can all attest from our personal experience, thinking about the future can be stressful. When we engage in an escape activity—say, settling down with a light historical novel or going to the movie theater to watch this summer's blockbuster—it is this kind of stress that we try to escape. Interestingly enough, the getaway world does not have to be fictional: rumination about the potential futures, or, indeed, about the past that we'd rather not dwell on, can be effectively avoided by escaping into the real present. As Omar Khayyam put it,

Ah, fill the Cup:—what boots it to repeat

How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:

Unborn TOMORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,

Why fret about them if TODAY be sweet! 

Although it is probably not what the hedonist persona of Khayyam's rubayiat would endorse, the escape into the present moment need not involve an ongoing pleasurable activity to be effective: simply focusing the mind on the present can do the job. This observation is, of course, the basis of mindfulness meditation, a traditional practice whose effectiveness is now being confirmed by scientific studies.

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To understand in cognitive-psychological terms what it means to focus on the present, we need to realize that the human self—what it feels like to be me—is not unitary, nor is it unanalyzable. One of the distinctions that can be drawn here is between narrative and experiential selves. The narrative self arises from the stories that we continually spin about ourselves (mostly for our own consumption) and that can be found, in a stripped-down form of series of episodic memories, also in animal species that have no language. Because stories typically extend over time not only into the past but also into the future (and so do episodic memories, which are one of the main tools of forethought, as I explained elsewhere), the narrative component of the self is what we may at times wish to escape.

The experiential self, in comparison, is all in and about the present: this computer screen, this waft of air perfumed by grass and a hint of rain coming through my open window, this cramp in my leg which I need to move—now. Studies such as that of Norman Farb and colleagues (Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, SCAN 2:313-322, 2007), who scanned the brains of subjects in two conditions, Narrative Focus and Experiential Focus, suggest that these two modes of conscious self-bias are indeed characterized by distinct patterns of relative activation of different brain regions. This distinction, in turn, has ramifications for the pursuit of happiness:

"[...] The capacity to disengage temporally extended narrative and engage more momentary neural modes of self-focus has important implications for mood and anxiety disorders, with the narrative focus having been shown to increase illness vulnerability (Segal et al., 2006). Conversely, a growing body of evidence suggests approaching self-experience through a more basic present-centred focus may represent a critical aspect of human well-being (Davidson, 2004)."

I find it very gratifying that ancient insights into human nature offered by one of my favorite philosophical and spiritual systems (Buddhism, in many of its varieties) are being corroborated by brain science. As a scientist, I must, however, note that for the very same reason that mindfulness meditation and similar spiritual practices are effective in furthering moment-to-moment personal well-being, they are likely to have both personal and societal negative side effects in the long run.

On the personal level, living in the present—a difficult undertaking, for which one has to overcome a deeply-rooted evolutionary urge to keep pondering the past and peeking into the future—by definition holds one back from learning from past experience and perhaps improving one's lot. On the societal level, a mass retreat into the present would lead to a catastrophic collapse. (Note that a monastic order charged with nothing but contemplation benefits the society at large only under the assumption of a supernatural agency that balances the collective "karma", a hypothesis for which there is little scientific evidence, seeing as "time and chance happeneth to them all". There is evidence that doing good, such as filling a monk's bowl with rice, contributes to the giver's well-being, but by the same logic so should paying one's taxes, if these are spent on social welfare rather than on fighting unnecessary wars.)

Much more worrisome than the prospects of a society of meditators's eventual collapse is the way in which an excessive focus on the part of society's members on their individual moment-to-moment well-being erodes the foundations of the human social contract (itself an evolutionary legacy—contrary to Ayn Rand's fantasies, we are not an individualistic species). This erosion is mediated by a whole bunch of memes, about each of which one might ask "Cui bono?" ("Who benefits?"; see my earlier post) and the answer would always be the same: the haves, at the expense of the have-nots. This is definitely true for the focus-on-the-present meme: mindfulness meditators are less likely to storm the palace and divide the grain stored in its basement. Here are some additional examples, from other spiritual traditions:

Whosoever is rich? He who is happy with his lot.

Talmud (Mishna Avot 4:1)

 And this:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew (19:24)

 And this:

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

Luke (6:20)

So much for the meme, currently regrettably popular in the liberal social media, that Jesus was a socialist. Listen, for a change—if you're curious as to what real change may look like—to Cisco Houston, or Woody Guthrie:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and pray, live on hay

You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

That's a lie.

And if you're after some science that speaks to these ideas, read Solt et al. (Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity, Social Science Quarterly, 92:447-465, 2011):

"Objective. What effect does the extent of economic inequality within a country have on the religiosity of the people who live there? As inequality increases, does religion serve primarily as a source of comfort for the deprived and impoverished or as a tool of social control for the rich and powerful? Methods. This article examines these questions with two complementary analyses of inequality and religiosity: a multilevel analysis of countries around the world over two decades and a time-series analysis of the United States over a half-century. Results. Economic inequality has a strong positive effect on the religiosity of all members of a society regardless of income. Conclusions. These results support relative power theory, which maintains that greater inequality yields more religiosity by increasing the degree to which wealthy people are attracted to religion and have the power to shape the attitudes and beliefs of those with fewer means."

To summarize: the practice of living the moment may impede individual development and social progress. Think about it. Now.

Shimon Edelman, Ph.D., author of The Happiness of Pursuit and Computing the Mind, is a Professor of Psychology at Cornell University.

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