"Live for the moment" and "seize the day" are probably the two most common clichés about dealing with distress. From new-age philosophers to Buddhist spiritualism to modern psychology we are told to put aside regrets about the past and worries about the future and to try to make the most out of the present. It sounds like a trivial task. Indeed, all non-human species do it all the time without even being aware of doing it. But it is precisely awareness, which distinguishes human beings from other species, that makes it so hard for us to live in the present.
Human psychology is evolutionarily hard-wired to live in the past and the future. Other species have instincts and reflexes to help with their survival, but human survival relies very much on learning and planning. You can’t learn without living in the past, and you can’t plan without living in the future. Regret, for example, which makes many of us miserable by reflecting on the past, is an indispensable mental mechanism for learning from one’s own mistakes to avoid repeating them. Fears about the future are likewise essential to motivate us to do something that is somewhat unpleasant today but has an enormous benefit for our well-being in the future. Without this fear we would not acquire an education or invest in our future; we wouldn’t be able to take responsibility for our health; we wouldn’t even store food. We would simply eat as much as we feel like and dispose of the rest.
The other reason why it’s so hard for us to live in the present is that our intelligent cognition simply denies its existence. Our mind views time as a continuous and linear process. Because it is continuous, any millisecond before the present moment is already past and any millisecond later is already a future.
But the “live for the moment” recommendation must have some truth in it if it’s universally recognized as a useful strategy for dealing with distress. Indeed, research evidence does show that people who are capable of discarding thoughts about the past and the future are generally happier.
Can our evolutionary disposition to overly focus on the past and the future be tricked into giving the present more space, making it endure? I believe it can. One useful strategy is to acknowledge the fact that “me” today is not exactly the same person as me yesterday or me tomorrow, that our lifespan is comprised of multiple selves on different shifts as we develop and change throughout our life. This is not an illusion but a reality. If “me” is the sum of my memories, desires, thoughts, and feelings, then clearly me today is a very different person from me 20 years ago, and who knows who this person might be twenty years from now. This reality becomes more apparent to us when we look at our photo album from the distant past, and people who have gone through a major crisis in their life would acknowledge this fact more readily than others.
While the multiple-selves paradigm might seem a bit scary to some people it is actually quite encouraging because it suggests that we should care less about past regrets and future fears. Our past and future selves are not total strangers to us. They are indeed our relatives but they aren’t us. And while we care about our relatives we care way more about ourselves. I may blame my past self for mistakes made in the past that affect my life today, but the more detrimental emotion of regret can be rendered null and void. I might feel concerned about how my future self might be coping in a few years’ time, but I can’t really know how he would feel about his new circumstances because again he is not me.
The multiple-selves paradigm encourages us to do something we are naturally pretty good at: to be really selfish, to care primarily for our true self, the one who lives now.