Finding happiness: how to live in the moment

Anna Brech

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“Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be” ― so says Eckhart Tolle aka the guru of living in The Now. 

It’s no secret that our thoughts love to pinball between the past and the future, churning up a cycle of negativity between “what was” or “what will be”.

Read more: Can adventure travel help you live longer?

Most of these worries are redundant. The past has already happened, and we can’t control the future. But that doesn’t stop our minds whipping up mischief all the same.

Think of it as unhappiness tick; one that everyone is prone to.

And to keep it at bay, you need to stay in the present. Here’s four practical ways to do just that, and embrace the principle of No More Not Yets:

Savour the small things

Strawberry picking in the highlands

A 2010 study from Harvard University found that, although we are happiest when we live in the now, we spend nearly 50% of our time thinking about something other than what we’re doing.

In other words, our minds our sabotaging us by refusing to be in the present.

Just getting the brain to stay put is easier said then done: it’s not like we can tie our thoughts up like a perky Labrador outside a supermarket.

But a process called “savouring” will help anchor your mind to the moment. Defined by psychologists as “noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life”, savouring means paying attention to the little things.

brunch recipes

For example, when you’re handed a mug of steaming hot chocolate after climbing Mount Batur in Bali. When the sunlight catches the waves as you paddle across the Cape Peninsula. When you spot a funny sign on the colourful streets of Bogotá.

Start to notice these little things, and it quickly becomes a habit. Instead of worrying (“I really don’t want to return to work”) or ruminating (“Oh I wish I could come back here!”), you learn to appreciate (“I am here! And wow, look at those stars”).

Noticing things is a physical cue that tethers your mind to the present.

Find your flow

Long necked Kayan tribe in Kayah state Myanmar

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  defines “flow” as a peak moment of consciousness in which we are so engaged with what we’re doing, we lose all grasp of time.

It’s a state of total absorption, and it’s elusive: you can’t just ask Alexa to order it. But crucially, it comes from doing something challenging and enjoyable; a past-time that will sweep you up in the moment by demanding your concentration.

Simply chilling in a hammock or watching TV won’t generate flow, because they’re passive activities.

Kayaking South Africa

Instead, look to something like painting your own Nauhual Maya (aka Mayan animal spirit) with the help of a Tz’utujil artist on the shores of Lake Atitlán.

Or canyoning through the peaks and troughs of the valley riverbed in the Canadian Rockies.

In these activities or similar, your attention zooms in the task at hand. Your mind forgets to worry as it becomes deeply involved in the present, with a razor-like and almost meditative focus.

As Csikszentmihalyi says: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Accept what you can’t change

There’s something wonderfully freeing about accepting things in your life: both the good and the bad.

Whether it’s the behaviour of other people or your own internal experience, researchers are clear that acceptance holds the key to greater happiness and more robust mental health.

There are two ways this works: first, you can accept your own negative emotions and reactions. Instead of trying to suppress them or judging yourself for them, allow them to just “be” (a key element of mindfulness).

Secondly, you can accept that you don’t have control over certain external things.

Solo travel allows you to meet new people

And the sooner you do this, the sooner your mind will stop being caught in that cognitive trap where it rallies against what it can’t change.

When you next come up against a problem in life, separate what you can’t change (“I’m worried the company I work for will fold”) with what you can (“I’m worried that my lack of skills mean I’ll struggle to find a new job”).

You can even go so far as to write out a good old list of non-controlled versus controlled factors. By dismissing the non-controlleds, you free your mind up to stay in the present and focus on what you CAN change ― with positive action.

Take positive action

If thoughts are the mud that weighs us down in life, action is the ladder that sets us free. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have thoughts. That would be a thankless, and frankly impossible, task.

Let your thoughts be, but don’t take them too seriously. You are not your thoughts.

Instead, focus on actions. Actions will blitz that internal chatter and force you to stay in the moment. You’ll be driven by a sense of overriding purpose, passion even (this is where flow comes into play).

Think of the mantra that Japanese psychiatrist Morita lived by. Rather than the more common, “How do I feel?”, he always asked himself, “What is the next thing I need to do?”

Don’t dwell on your feelings about the past and the future. But jump straight to: what can I do about it? What is the next thing I need to do?

Bear in mind the sneaky habit the mind has of disrupting action. For that reason, you need to act on your instincts as quickly as you can, before your thoughts put a scupper in the works.

These solo travellers all took the plunge when saying yes to adventure, and haven’t looked back since:

Read more: Ed Stafford on why your 30s are a time for adventure

And also remember, this doesn’t have to be big action (although a life-affirming adventure never hurt anyone ?). It can be anything; any of the small minutiae of moments and decisions that take place every day, right in front of us.

But actions, above all, will pitch you head-first into the glorious present.

As the late and brilliant columnist John Diamond wrote in his last-ever column: “Why am I happy? Because I’m alive. And the simple answer to the question ‘What the hell is the point of it all’ is this is the point of it all. You aren’t happy? Yes you are: this, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it.”


This story is part of Flash Pack’s No More Not Yets campaign. Our mission is to eradicate two powerful words that can stop you achieving your dreams: “not yet”. The not yet seen, not yet swum, not yet sat in the suns. Not yet met, not yet tried, not yet climbed, braved or conquered. What’s your Not Yet? Find out more here.

Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock


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