Does Being in the “Here and Now” Increase Life’s Meaning?

Transcending the present moment is often helpful.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Some people tell me that they take their lives to be insufficiently meaningful, and they attribute this to what they see as their failure to be wholly in the “here and now,” that is, to fully live in the present alone.

Some of them discuss not being in the here and now as escaping from reality: when they’re not in the here and now, they say, they’re thinking about what isn’t real and doesn’t exist. What happened in the past doesn’t exist anymore. And what will happen in the future doesn’t exist yet. Thus, when we’re not in the here and now, we’re not relating to what is real. And not relating to what is real detracts from life’s meaningfulness.

Further, they see being in the here and now as being fully present, exercising all of one’s capacities, focusing on the condition in which one is, and thus living more intensely and deliberately, all of which they associate with having a meaningful life.

Many also associate being in the here and now with controlling oneself and one’s thoughts, with coping with the condition one finds oneself in, and with acting rather than just musing passively. Of course, all these, again, are associated with having a meaningful life.

However, I’d like to suggest that, in fact, not being in the here and now can often significantly enhance meaning in life. For example, thinking about good things that we did or that happened to us in the past can empower us. It can also remind us that, although the present might be problematic, there have been very good, meaningful aspects to our life, and that our life, taken as a whole, has been much more meaningful than it appears now.

Focusing on good things that happened in the past may also help us remember that although we may be in a bad place now, our life isn’t essentially bad or meaningless. Perhaps things are bad here and now, but since there have been better times in the past, it is likely that there will also be better times in the future. This can help us keep in mind that the bad right now may just be a temporary crisis, a difficult period that we need to pass until things improve. Not living only in the here and now can also help us to recognize that most people’s lives are made of both low points and high points. We might be in a low point right now, but there are good reasons to think that this can change.

Transcending the here and now can also help us put things in perspective. Yes, what is happening now is bad, even terrible. But in the context of our whole life, is it really as terrible as it seems? Is it possible that in twenty years, or two years, or even two months or two weeks, we wouldn’t see it as such a big thing? What is here and now usually seems bigger than it really is, simply because it’s so close to us, just as when we put a small coin close to the eye: the coin looks immense and conceals from us the rest of the universe. Seeing it in its real size and comparing it to other things provides perspective and context.

Thinking about the future can also instill hope. Further, the future is what makes our present efforts worthwhile. One major difference between humans and animals is that we live in the future too: we make plans and have hopes. That is a major reason why our lives have value.

Of course, there are also wrong ways of being in the past and in the future, as when people passively muse and daydream without coping with what needs to be done. What is written above doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t also live in the here and now to the right degree and manner. But we’ll do so better if we combine it with being in the past and future. We should balance the different aspects of our lives. Some people who feel that their lives are insufficiently meaningful shouldn’t be in the here and now more than they are but, rather, less.