You don’t have to look very far in the psychology world to find advice about “living in the moment.”
And the truth is there is a lot of scientific evidence showing the physical and mental benefits of mindfulness and why we should aim to be more present in our everyday lives.
The purpose of this article isn’t to diminish the importance of mindfulness or “living in the moment,” but to remind you that it’s just one mode of awareness.
At times, it is just as important that we “step outside of the moment,” and interpret our world from a broader viewpoint.
The benefits of reflecting on the past
One benefit we don’t get from only living in the moment is reflecting on our past and learning from our mistakes.
If we never look backward at the scope of our life, the choices we’ve made, and where they have led us, then it’s incredibly difficult to identify what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong.
Research indicates that reflection is key to learning.
The benefits of planning for the future
Living a happy, healthy, and successful life often requires adequate planning and foresight. It rarely happens by accident.
Therefore, looking forward into the future is often just as important as reflecting backwards on our past, or living in the moment.
If we never think about the direction we want to go in our life, it is very unlikely we will get there. This is why it is so important to make our values and goals clear to ourselves.
Try creating a rough timeline to better envision your goals.
The benefits of mind-wandering
When “living in the moment” we often try to fix our attention toward something in the present – like our breathing.
And any time we deviate from this fixed awareness – or get distracted by something else that catches our attention – we beat ourselves up because we are no longer living in the present. Instead, we have what is sometimes called “monkey mind.”
However, some research suggests that mind-wandering and daydreaming can actually come with some valuable benefits.
Of course, daydreaming can be counterproductive (especially when it leads to procrastination), but other times letting our minds wander can aid in creativity and problem-solving.
This is because sometimes things distract our attention because we find them new and interesting. And keeping our minds open to different thoughts and sensations can help increase our opportunity to discover new ideas.
In this way, the occasional daydreaming and mind-wandering should be thought of as healthy.
“Living in the moment” – a common excuse to be impulsive and reckless?
This isn’t always true, but sometimes I see people use the “living in the moment” excuse as a way to justify their impulsivity and recklessness.
Say you’re at a party, solely living in the moment, without any concerns for the past or future.
With such a mindset, you may find yourself drinking lots of alcohol, taking drugs, and engaging in unsafe sex with strangers. And why not? You’re just reacting to your immediate surroundings, you’re not seeing the bigger picture of your actions, so you act in ways that only bring immediate satisfaction.
In this example, “living in the moment” becomes an excuse to find short-term gratification, but ignore long-term consequences. This is a misapplication of living in the present.
When to “live in the moment” – and when not to
Developing mindfulness and “living in the moment” are valuable skills to learn. I can’t stress that enough, I just don’t think they are the only skills to learn.
The ability to “step outside your immediate senses” – and also reflect on the past, and plan for the future – are often just as important to your happiness and health.
In fact, reflection and foresight are valuable adaptations of the human mind that have greatly helped our evolution over time. They are also what distinguish us from more primitive minds, which can only react to information they receive on a momentary basis, and therefore can’t form memories or project into the future.
Trying to live in the moment, while completely ignoring the past and future, can be dangerous. There needs to be a balance between these different modes of awareness in order to have a healthy, functioning mind.
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