In one of his best soap-box rants, David Mitchell very astutely pointed out that living in the moment is stupid. I’ll illustrate why it’s stupid with his example modified for the Bluejays’ epic winning streak. A baseball game where your team scores constantly and wins handily is pleasant while it’s happening because you avoid the uncertainty and discomfort of not knowing if your team will win, however that joy is short lived. Conversely, a game that is neck-and-neck all the way to the finish and ends with a dramatic win will be a source of cheer for years to come. Thus, living in the moment, or doing what makes you happy now, is a recipe for disaster.
Take a more extreme example: I once broke my arm very badly and the bones had to be set. To do so required drugging me quite heavily but not putting me under. I’m told I moaned with pain while my bones were wrenched apart and jammed back together. And despite all that pain and suffering, I am not traumatized by the experience because I have no memory of it. If I were living in the moment, my forearm would still be bend like a hockey stick.
You see, our experience right now is not informed by how happy we were during the past, it’s informed by how happy we are now about the past. Therefore the key to happiness is not living in the moment, but rather strategically choosing activities, be they joyous or miserable, that will positively impact your future perceptions.
Lets talk about the weather. Yesterday in Toronto, the temperature reached 32 degrees and the humidity made it feel like 40. Normally I would hate this kind of weather. You sweat and it doesn’t evaporate because of the humidity, your shirt collar gets sticky, and everyone stinks. But that’s not what I was thinking about; I was thinking about Madrid. The last time I felt such overpowering sunshine and warmth was exploring the streets of Madrid, walking through narrow alleyways, shopping at flea markets, and drinking sangria on the terraces. Did I enjoy the heat in Madrid? Heck no. But I enjoy it now because it reminds me of Madrid. That’s the incredible power of positive association.
Me and Laura sweating like pigs at Plaza Mayor, Madrid
What about inclement weather: rain, sleet, hail, snow? What about when the wind blows precipitation horizontal? It may make you think about how cold and wet you are, but it reminds me of mountaineering. It reminds me of waiting out a lightning and hail storm while climbing in the pyrenees. Now I didn’t really enjoy the hail storm itself, but it is close enough to the utter bliss of pyrenean climbing that they are stuck together in my head. Certain crummy weather conditions will forever cheer me up.
Our tent after the lighning and hail storm in Parque National Ordesa y Monte Perdido
Positive association can turn miserable life events into wonderful, transformative memories, and you’ll have the memories a lot longer than you’ll ever have the life events. And that’s why you should never live in the moment.