US psychologist Dr. Ryan Howell studied around 750 people and came to the conclusion that it is not our prospects of the future but rather how we perceive our past that determines our contentment.
A German chemist magazine translated this to the statement: “A positive view on our past brings contentment to life”.
I don´t agree with these generalisations though for several reasons.
1. Back in the good old times…
The statements above can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Sure, people who generally have a positive outlook on live and events in the present and the past are certainly happier than those who focus on the miserable side. However, let´s get this straight. Glorifying the “good old days” of the past does not bring any happiness in our present. On the contrary. Don´t we often get to hear that “in the past everything was better” and that “today people just don´t care as much anymore”, and so on?
That sounds rather despondent, bitter or like complaining to me. The result is fairly sad: because not many people like to be around someone who´s complaining, if they don´t have to, the “good old timers” are really left alone and it seems like “no one cares”. A vicious circle that is hard to break.
2. Feelings of the present
Contentment, satisfaction or happiness don´t come from focusing on the past. They are all feelings of the present. It is not how we experienced an event years ago that determines our feelings, it is which mindset or state we are in now that influences our memory about that event.
We do not carry feelings from the past to now. The feeling we had at the time is also only a memory today. We may recall it, but when we do, our memory is effected by our momentary frame of mind. Even what we recall is depending on our current attitude. If we´re miserable, we recall miserable situations. If we´re joyful, we recall events we experienced as joyful.
But in any case, it is how we feel today that determines whether we are happy, sad, content or at peace.
3. Happiness is a choice
And so is any other feeling. We can choose our state deliberately at any time simply by focusing or recalling something that triggers the feelings we want to awaken. It can happen in a heartbeat or it can be an effort, but either way it is a choice. And it is a choice we are making in the now.
How we perceive our past has nothing to do with our contentment today. A person could have had a terrible past, full of so-called failure, misery, trouble and so on, and perceive it that way too, yet this man or woman can still be happy and content, because s/he is choosing to live in the now, to be accepting and to have faith in the future.
4. Be true to yourself
In his book WINK, Roger Hamilton´s character Richard is learning about creating a vision. His father always said “Be true to yourself!” and the Optometrist – Richard´s first teacher – agrees. And then he asks a very important question: “Is your father true to his past self or his future self?”
He further explains: “If you´re true to your past self, you will stay as you are. If you decide to be true to your future self, then your life will change beyond measure.” And “If you´re committed to being true to your future self, you need vision. […]When your vision becomes stronger than your memory, your future will become more precious than your past.”
Richard is only nine years old and the context of the conversation with the Optometrist is to understand the importance of creating a vision for life, but I think living with a vision is relevant at any age. So is authenticity, being true to our Self. Who we have become is a result of the choices we made in the past, but who we are becoming is determined by the choices we make now and in the future.
Focusing on the past – whether positively or negatively – is synonymous for immobility. There is no movement, no choice, it can´t be changed – it´s done. Concentrating on the now and the future on the other side opens up alternatives for change. We can influence the now and certainly the future, giving ourselves choices, options, a variety of opportunities!
Having to choose between being true to my past self and my future self, I know which one I go for!
5. Connecting generations
When I worked in the complaints and parts exchange department of a (then) big sewing machine company, I had a colleague who was more than 40 years older than I was. While most of the other departments where at least using electronic typewriters if not computers, she insisted on keeping “her” old manual typewriter, which was close to being antique. And so was this lady in terms of her mindset.
She was lovely, don´t get me wrong, but you couldn´t have a conversation with her about anything that was “up-to-date”, let alone “that modern stuff”. I have rarely seen anyone who was so stuck in “the good old days” as her. I liked her, but I could not connect with her.
At the same time I saw people the same age as my colleague participating in courses how to use a computer or even the internet. When asked why, they said they wanted to stay connected with technology, what´s happening in the world and they were curious to explore “those new gadgets”. They were fun to talk to and we had the most interesting conversations – about the past, the present and the future!
Those people were living in the now and for the future. They were making an effort to connect with the next generation and even the one after, which in turn made it easy to associate with them. It felt so much easier to learn from them and it was more fun listening to them, too. Although part of an older generation, they could relate to the present circumstances, which made what they said about the past seem more relevant to the younger age group.
In order to be able to do that, it is necessary to accept and honour the present, even if it may not seem to compare to the – sometimes glorified – past, to be grateful for what was and what is.
Let´s hope that when Dr. Ryan Howell was talking about positive memories from the past he didn´t mean the “good old days” talk, but really a memory that evokes a positive feeling – knowing that the past is concluded, but the feelings are still nourishing.