If I asked you, “where are you living?”, you may respond with an address, a city, a country or coordinates. You might tell me about your favourite spots nearby, the positives and negatives of living there, how bad the traffic is, or how green the parks are. But what if I asked you where your brain is living? By this I mean, are your thoughts residing in the past, the present or the future? A common message in mindfulness practice is to “be present” and to embrace how you feel right now, which is something that I have found difficult at times. In particular, in the search for my happiness I have spent a lot of time in the past and dreaming about my future. I would like to reflect on my adventures to these exciting and varied lands which might encourage you to think about where your brain has been residing and where you are now.
During my first semester of university, I was not in the greatest of headspaces. I was struggling to settle into university. The previous year had been a bit of a slog; striving to get into university, going to interviews, taking a driving test, trying to get good enough grades and now I was where I had wanted to be. But still, it didn’t give me that gratification that I expected would come. I felt that I wasn’t making friends and internalised the idea that “I am awkward and socially inept and everything would be fine if I didn’t live at home”. I struggled with studying and told myself “I’m stupid and not good enough”. I felt alone and sluggish and told myself “this is just adulthood and I’m just an unhappy person”. I had a very fixed mindset1 and that was that. Adulthood was bad and anything that came before it was good.
So, what was my grand solution to my sadness? It was to recreate my childhood and try to rehash all those cosy feelings, watch all the TV programmes and movies of my youth, read all the books I loved as a kid, look at piles of family photos and video footage. I had a lovely time. My mum probably did too. I’m sure she was very pleased that someone was finally taking the time to chronologically organise all of our family photographs into albums. I kept searching for more and more things that I had previously enjoyed. I looked on Google Maps at all the places I had been on holiday, planning to go back there one day. Nostalgia2 is a powerful thing and definitely brought about many positive emotions but I found that when I was seeking only memories and familiarity, it started to feel stale. It didn’t have the shine that I remembered. And now I believe that is precisely because I was not seeking any novelty, there were no surprises, I wasn’t growing as a person, or learning. I don’t deny the value in memories and nostalgia; our past experiences help to mould us into who we are in the present. However, I found that focusing too much on the past was not the solution to my sadness. From that experience I have learned to let my memories and my past experiences just be as they were, whether good, bad or neutral. In short, I can learn from my memories but I don’t need to dwell on them.
One of my favourite TV shows is Being Erica. It deals with the idea of living in the past beautifully. The show is centred around Erica’s therapy in which she gets to go back in time to fix regrets. In the final episode3 she meets her older brother who died at age 21. He had been living in a corridor with many doors (presumably since his death). Behind each door is a memory from his life which he can return to and relive. He explains that he has been doing this since he died. The only door he has not dared to open is the door to “the next life” or the future. That is exactly how I experienced living in the past – being stuck in a dark corridor of doors. Reliving happy memories is lovely but short lived. They can’t sustain my happiness. I need the present, the future and the past to live a balanced life.
A (rough) bibliography
- Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
- An interesting interview on nostalgia – Speaking of Psychology: Does Nostalgia Have a Psychological Purpose? https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/nostalgia
- Being Erica – Season 4 Episode 11: “Dr Erica”