How much time do you spend thinking about the future? If you’re a second-semester senior, you can surely relate to the dreaded dinner party ‘what about next year?’ questions that point you in a perennially forward-facing direction. Thinking about post-grad life is a necessary part of planning the next stage after Tufts. But as evident from the to-do sticky notes that mark so many Jumbo desktops—digital or otherwise—and the daily campus conversations sprinkled with ‘tomorrows’, ‘next weekends,’ and ‘this summers,’ I think it’s safe to say that most Tufts students are somewhat preoccupied with the future.
Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted a study in 2010 linking levels of happiness to mental focus. They claimed that when a person’s mind wanders from their present activity, their happiness levels tend to sink. The study would suggest that people reading this issue of the Observer would derive more happiness by simply focusing on the material in front of them compared to those who allowed their minds to stray to daydreams of the past and future.
So is all this talk about upcoming plans draining from our present happiness? Psychologists, spiritual gurus, and wellness-consultants alike have advocated the benefits of “flow”—immersing your mind fully in activity— to achieve greater levels of happiness and mental control. Of the quarter-million people they studied, Killingsworth and Gilbert found that on average, Americans’ minds were wandering 47 percent of the time.
In today’s climate of social media whirrs and pings, we are surrounded by opportunities to dip into thoughts of the past and future. Check your Twitter feed and you’re transported to an upcoming music festival this summer; check Instagram and your sister’s #throwbackthursday blasts you back to the past. Social media provides infinite rabbit-holes of daydreaming possibilities.
By losing yourself in hoping, planning, and reminiscing of other times, you might be missing out on the awesomeness of now. It’s humbling to remember senior year of high school, envisioning myself at Tufts, walking across the quad, attending fascinating college classes, and exploring everything that Boston had to offer. Sometimes when I find myself lost in a distant mental location, I remind myself that I’m living those daydreams now.
It’s easy enough to imagine landing that dream job in New York or San Francisco, and to romanticize what you’d be doing from day to day. But it’s also easy to omit what you’d think day to day in such situations—chances are it would be very much like what you think on a daily basis now. Killingsworth and Gilbert’s data suggest that the location of the body is not nearly as important as location of the mind when considering happiness.
Have you ever felt nostalgic about a moment as it was happening? It’s as if our minds only process experiences within a frame of the past or through a lens of the future. But I think we should define our experiences at Tufts beyond mere retrospect and anticipation. Nostalgia is sweet but joy is sweeter.