Staying in the Present Can Help You Find Happiness

You already have one of the most effective tools for feeling good

The mind is always busy. No matter where we are or what we are doing, the mind is constantly generating thoughts that affect our feelings and moods. Often these thoughts don't represent reality, but they feel very real and can influence our emotions, whether that's happiness, distress, sadness, or fear.

Distressing or negative thoughts often get the upper hand, and there's an evolutionary reason for that: Our early ancestors needed to focus on potential threats to stay safe. But in modern times, this tendency to repeat concerning thoughts can actually complicate most situations, not keep us safe. Repetitive negative thinking keeps us stuck in worries and doomsday scenarios, creating an inner chaos that builds upon itself.

When this happens, it can help to remember that staying in the present is the most powerful way to quiet that mental chaos.

That's because what you are usually doing in the present moment is often not very distressing. And the anxiety you feel is about completed unrelated thoughts – like something in the past or future that you are fixated on. For instance, repeatedly going over an unpleasant interaction, thinking what you could have done differently and beating yourself up about it.

Staying present takes power away from these kinds of distressing thoughts. This doesn't mean that you're avoiding or denying your thoughts, but it is a very effective way to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression, trauma, and suffering that are rooted in the past or tied to the future. Ruminating on the past can make you sad or regret things you cannot change. Worrying about the future can make you feel anxious and stressed about things you cannot control or predict. But staying in the present improves your concentration and your capacity to make good decisions, so you actually can plan for the future.

The good news is that most of our thoughts are the result of habit and inertia. Staying in the present is a way to break these habits. And with practice, there are ways to create new habits of thinking that feel better. 

Practice mindfulness
When your mind generates distressing thoughts or takes you out of the present, redirect your attention back to what you are doing. This trains your mind to focus on one task so you are not distracted by unwelcome thoughts and worries. For example, when you are washing dishes or taking a shower, notice how the water feels on your skin. If you are taking a walk, pay attention to how your feet feel on the ground as you move forward. When you give this attention to any daily activity, you will notice how it helps you calm down.

Pay attention to your breath
If you are having a hard time staying in the present, just concentrate on your breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of three, hold your breath for a count of three, and then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of five. Repeat this a few times until you feel less agitated. You can also try noticing how your breath feels as it enters your nose when you inhale, fills up your chest and belly, and leaves your body when you exhale.

Try meditation
Meditation is a powerful tool for staying in the present and calming your mind and your body. You may want to try different methods until you find one that feels right. What matters is that the practice is simple and works for you. Some popular methods of mediation include:

Transcendental meditation. This simple technique needs to be practiced for 20 minutes, twice daily. It uses a mantra to help you focus during meditation.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction, started by medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, focuses attention on your breathing and on mentally scanning your body without judgment. You can find guided meditation videos from Jon Kabat-Zinn on YouTube.
Primordial sound meditation, founded by Deepak Chopra, uses a personal mantra in meditation. Deepak Chopra's guided meditations can also be found on YouTube.
Buddhist meditation focuses on observing your breath, posture, and the thoughts that go through your mind. As the thoughts come in, you observe them and let them go. Check out buddhanet for more information.

Many mediation apps, such as Relax Lite, Calm, Headspace, and Take a Break, can help you with your meditation practice.

Fully concentrate on a conversation
The mind likes to zone out, drift into the past and future, and divide your attention. To help your mind stay in the now, practice listening with undivided attention. When someone is talking to you, focus on what that person is saying and give 100 percent of your attention. Don't let your mind wander or think about your reply. Watch the other person's face, make eye contact, and relax. If your thoughts begin to drift, just notice that and then bring your attention back to the other person.

When you move away from the present, you are more likely to feel sad, insecure, unworthy, or anxious for unrelated reasons. When you direct your attention to the present moment, you have an opportunity to heal yourself. If you notice, however, that you are unable to manage the concerns in your mind and they are affecting your ability to function, support from a mental health provider can be a great help through psychotherapy, medication or a combination of the two.

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