If you want happiness, you need to understand how to live in the present. It’s easier than you think!
I’m going to show you how to make your life more exciting and enjoyable, one moment at a time. I’ve spent the last decade researching various happiness and mindfulness techniques, and I’m happy to share what I’ve found on how to live in the present.
And, unlike researchers who tried to understand more about how we react to the world around us, I won’t ask you to put your hands in painfully cold water.
The Truth about Happiness
Have you ever dipped your hands in cold water for 60 seconds? How about 90 seconds? What if someone paid you to do it? Would you do it?
In an experiment in pain, researchers asked one group of participants to hold their hands in painfully cold water for one minute. They asked a different group to do exactly that, but then asked them to keep their hands in for an additional 30 seconds as they raised the temperature 2 degrees.
When asked about the experience, the people who held their hands in the cold water longer rated the trial less painful, less cold, and easier to cope with than the other group. 70% of them chose to repeat the experiment if needed.
Both groups had the same experience, but the group that experienced 30 additional seconds of slightly warmer water found it better. Even though the second group had to endure what the first group did and then an additional 30 seconds of still cold water, because the water warmed up slightly at the end, it made the entire experience better. The stunning results of this experiment give us a hint of how to live in the present, and it’s probably far from what we think.
A Life of Luxury
We often think that we would be happy if we just live a life of ease and luxury. Yet studies show that, although earning a livable wage is important, happiness is not found from easy living. In fact, we find the best happiness not in a life of constant luxury, but in moments.
In their book The Power of Moments, New York Times Bestsellers Chip and Dan Heath highlight how moments have a bigger impact in our lives than we realize.
Let’s take an example of going to Disney that the authors use in their book:
Let’s say you take your family to Disney World. During your visit, we text you every hour, asking you to rate your experience at that moment on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is lousy and 10 is terrific. Let’s assume we check in with you 6 times. Here’s how your day shapes up:
9 a.m.: Cattle-herding your kids out of the hotel room. There’s excitement in the air. Rating: 6
10 a.m.: Riding “It’s a Small World” together, with parents and children each under the impression that the other must be enjoying this. Rating: 5
11 a.m.: Feeling a dopamine rush after riding the Space Mountain roller coaster. Your kids are begging to ride it again. Rating: 10
Noon: Enjoying expensive park food with your kids, who might enjoy it less if they knew you bought it with their college fund. Rating: 7
1 p.m.: Waiting in line, for 45 minutes now, in the 96-degree central Florida heat. Trying to keep your son from gnawing on the handrails. Rating: 3
2 p.m.: Buying mouse-ear hats on the way out of the park. Your kids look so cute. Rating: 8
To arrive at an overall summary of your day, we could simply average those ratings: 6.5. A pretty good day.
Now, let’s say we text you again, a few weeks later, and ask you to rate your overall Disney experience. A reasonable prediction of your answer would be 6.5, since it encompasses all the highs and lows of your day.
But psychologists would say that’s way off. They’d predict that, looking back on the day at Disney, your overall rating would be a 9! That’s because research has found that in recalling an experience, we ignore most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments.
It seems that the majority of what happens in our lives doesn’t hit the meter for stickiness: we may enjoy it in the moment, but it doesn’t factor into our happiness later. Just like the ice experiment, we don’t need to look for everything to go our way all the time. If we want to find out how to live in the moment, we need to avoid trying to make every minute a moment, and find ways to make the moments we do have more impactful.
If you want to find out how to live in the present, there are two simple steps. The first is to accept the world around you. We often look for more enjoyment, more pleasure, more money, more stimuli, and more excitement. These are all great, but it’s hard to be happy and be in the moment when we’re always on the lookout for more, more more! We need to find the enjoyment in how life is now.
Find peace in the quiet of the day. Find the value in the work in front of you and how it makes the world better. Find the fun in doing the things you normally do each day. Find the smiles. Look for the ways to appreciate what you have.
The second is to make moments. Find ways to inject fun and excitement into your day. Make going out for errands an adventure. Find a way to make a special outing a big surprise. You can stop one place for lunch, have a fun movie or time at the zoo or aquarium, and then have a stop for ice cream.
If you want to know how to live in the present, simple accept the world as it is for the moment and then make the moment special. It makes the present much more pleasant and sets you up for an exciting future.