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Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.
Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

It's the Journey, Not the Destination—or Is It?

Culture influences our focus on the past, present, or future.

Lisa Fotios/Pexels
Source: Lisa Fotios/Pexels

Current culture in the United States emphasizes a focus on the present. “It’s the journey, not the destination”. It’s not where you’ve been or where you’re going. What is important is where you are now.

Scripture in the Book of Matthew tells us to be like birds who don’t worry. Worrying cannot add a single hour to our lives. A popular song when I was young told us to “live for today and don’t worry ‘bout tomorrow”. Recent research shows that mindfulness meditation, which focuses on the present, reduces depression.

But what if the destination is better than the journey? Arriving in Hawaii is much better than the plane trip there. And being in Hawaii is much better than the plane trip back. The plane trips are tolerable only by anticipating being in Hawaii or good memories of being there. Sometimes where you’ve been or where you’re going is better than where you are.

A focus on the present sometimes has negative consequences. In a study of over 72,000 social media users, a focus on the present was associated with depression. In contrast, those who focused on the future were less likely to be depressed. If the present is unpleasant, an ability to see past it can be helpful. Eleanor Roosevelt said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Research shows that focusing on the past can also have mental health benefits. These include recovery from depression and trauma. Analyzing a past problem can provide a perspective on it. As George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Not everyone is as focused on the present as people in the United States are. People from East Asia have been found to be more focused on the past and future than people in the United States. This is because the past and future provide a context for the present. People in East Asia tend to be more interdependent than those in the United States. Relationships are highly valued. So, focusing on the past and future guides one to behave in a way that will maintain relationships.

A key reason that people in the United States are more focused on the present than people in East Asia is that they are also focused on themselves. People in the United States tend to be independent. They are not as concerned about how their present behavior will affect past or future relationships. But an extreme focus on the self—narcissism—can result in depression for oneself and for others.

A balance between the past, present, and future is needed. And a balance between the self and others. Where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going are all important. And who you’re with.


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About the Author
Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon with a focus in culture and mental health.