Happiness and mindfulness – is happiness in the past, present or future?

Happiness and mindfulness – is happiness in the past, present or future?

Where and when is happiness? Now, yesterday or tomorrow? Read this great review of what seems like a great book on a fascinating topic…

by Jeremy McCarthy, IPPA Newsletter Writer, (bio)

Positive psychology has been dabbling in time travel. Maybe not in the same sense that H. G. Wells envisioned when he dreamed up a time machine that could take a man to any point in the past or the future(2004). And not in the sense that Stephen Spielberg had when he imagined a Delorean sports car with a _ã–flux capacitor_㝠that allowed it to fly backwards through time (1985). But researchers have been investigating how we move through time psychologically, and how our perspectives of time can have a powerful effect on our well-being.

Research from the past several years has shown us how our well-being is greatly impacted by our optimism about the future and our styles of explaining the past (Seligman, 2006). Hope about the future (Lopez et al., 2004; Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, 2005) and gratitude towards the past (Bono, Emmons, & McCullough, 2004; Emmons & Shelton, 2005) have been two of the strongest areas of research that positive psychology has produced to date. For example, both writing down life-goals for the future (King, 2001), and writing down the things we are grateful for (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005), have shown increases in happiness among research participants.

Researchers continue to discover new links between time and well-being. In one recent study, (creatively entitled _ã–Back to the Future_ã), researchers found a causal relationship between using the imagination for _ã–positive mental time travel_㝠into the future and positive well-being (Quoidbach, Wood, & Hansenne, 2009). In another recent study, psychologists found that while critically thinking about past events stimulated interest, replaying the events, as a form of mental time travel, led to increased pleasure and positivity (Vitterso, Overwien, & Martinsen, 2009).

But how does all this research on mental time travel relate to the concept of _ã–mindfulness,_㝠which is generally defined as being attentive to the present (Brown & Ryan, 2003)? Mindfulness is another proven pathway to well-being, usually taught through meditation where practitioners practice nonjudgmental awareness of everything that is going on in the present moment (Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2002). A recent longitudinal study found that _ã–intensive mindfulness training_㝠was associated with _ã–significant gains_㝠in several indicators of mental health and well-being (Orzech, Shapiro, Brown & McKay, 2009, p. 220). The literature seems to promote two contradictory pathways to wellness: one by staying connected to the present moment and avoiding judgments or evaluations, and two by mental visualizations of, or expressions of gratitude and hope about the past and the future. 

To get some clarity on this seeming contradiction, I spoke with Ellen Langer (bio), whose new book, “Counterclockwise”, distills some of the research on mindfulness down to its practical, applicable essentials. The book centers on a unique study in which participants were asked to transport themselves back in time twenty years. Dr. Langer believes that the mind and body are connected, so that where the mind goes, the body will follow. By asking her research participants to mentally bring themselves back to a younger time, she was able to show a physical rejuvenation as well, demonstrated by positive changes in weight, height, strength, appearance, arthritic symptoms and mental sharpness (2009).

It would be easy to assume that, having orchestrated this unique exercise in mental time travel, Langer would downplay the importance of the present moment. On the contrary, she attributes the extraordinary results of the study to a state of mindfulness that came from the participants reliving the past as if it were the present moment. A control group was invited to reminisce about the past, but the experimental group was asked to re-enact in present terms their past selves (Langer, 2009; Langer, 1989).

After thirty years of studying mindfulness, Langer believes an awareness of novelty in the present moment is the key to well-being.  While she appreciates all of the research around gratitude interventions, there is something about the concept of gratitude that bothers her, _ã–as if we cannot take responsibility for the good things that happen to us, and have to give the credit somewhere else._㝠 For her, the benefits of gratitude interventions come not so much from an appreciation of the past, but rather an appreciation of positive outcomes in the present moment (personal communication, September 28, 2009).

Langer is also concerned about studies that highlight the benefits of a future orientation, since _ã–encouragement to hope implicitly regards the present as necessarily bad_㝠(Langer, 2005, p. 219). But she also told me that _ã–mindfulness breeds optimism._㝠Being more aware of the novelty in your surroundings dissipates concerns, anxiety and stress about the future. _ã–Once you realize that evaluations are all in your head,_㝠said Langer, _ã–there is no reason not to be optimistic.” Naturally, being engaged in the present moment will have consequences in the future. It may be within this strange merger of present and future that the link between mindfulness, time, and wellness exists.

Philip Zimbardo, who published _ã–The Time Paradox_㝠 last year (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008), suggested a balanced approach to time perspective (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004). _ã–Some present orientation is needed to enjoy life,_㝠said Zimbardo, _ã–Too much present orientation can rob life of happiness_㝠(Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008, p. 100). Like Langer, Zimbardo also encourages a sense of mindfulness towards the present:  _ã–When you are mindful, you are aware of your position and your destination,_㝠he said, _ã–You can make corrections to your path._㝠(p. 261).

But his research indicates that mindfulness should also be balanced with a healthy future time perspective. People with this perspective are more likely to do the things today that will bring them success and health in the future. They will study more, work harder, exercise more, eat better, drink less, smoke less, and take other preventive health measures more often than their more present-oriented counterparts (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008). Martin Seligman also sees the future as an important part of the well-being puzzle that science has failed to tap into.  _ã–Human beings are pulled by the future rather than being pushed by the past_ã, he said at the 2009 IPPA World Congress.

Langer_ã_s concept of mindfulness is not inconsistent with the research on other time perspectives.  _ã–Mindfulness is not vigilance or attention when what is meant by those concepts is a stable focus on an object or idea,_㝠she said. It is a _ã–flexible state of mind_㝠defined by _ã–actively drawing novel distinctions_㝠(2005, p. 214).  For her, this kind of mindful awareness of novelty happens very much in the present moment, but her own work indicates a sense of time in which past, present and future are all intertwined.

While everyone seems to agree on the unhealthy time perspectives people can have: worrying about the future or stressing about their evaluations of the past (Seligman, 2006; Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008; Langer, 2009), the time pathways to well-being remain ambiguous, and are a fertile ground for additional future research. As positive psychology continues to explore these questions, we may be developing a better understanding of what Zimbardo called a _ã–holistic present_ã, where time does not exist linearly, but past and future are both happening in this very moment (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008, pp. 110-111).  Like H. G. Wells_ã_ time machine, or Spielberg_ã_s Delorean, positive psychology is taking us on a journey that bends the very fabric of the universe in ways we can only begin to imagine.