The past is finished but not gone. The events already occurred are cemented in time. Life happens, we make mistakes. We fall into addictions. We hurt those we love. And we end up where we never thought we could be. Yet, this isn’t the end of the story. We place a period mark at the end of the sentence, change the page, and begin a new chapter—a better life.
A better life isn’t a simple flip of the switch. Current habits are blazoned in our hearts. The law of motion predicts we will continue the same direction. The human brain has tremendous capacity to learn—or self-deceive. Sometimes our learning system goes haywire, clinging to faulty responses that destroy rather heal. We hold on to pasts that we despise.
“Sometimes the learning system goes haywire, clinging to faulty responses that destroy rather heal.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Examining the Past Good and Bad
An approach for a better life requires something different. A compassionate journey into painful pasts, recognizing significant errors and damaging events may start the path to a better life. Often these journeys require guidance. Our past provides helpful insights that can sooth pain and create understanding.
We need balance. We need to identify errors to correct but not brood. We punish ourselves for mistakes, shaming for turning right when we should have made a left; these are dirty damaging thoughts that serve little purpose and waste precious time for changing the route.
The road missed usually isn’t as rosy as we imagined it would have been anyways. Such thoughts, while deliciously distracting, avoid the present where we can make life changing decisions. Once we identified the wrong fix it. If we discover we can’t fix it, then, perhaps, we should abandon it and move forward to a better life.
Jon Kabat-Zinn explains says we must “allow ourselves to be truly in touch with where we already are, no matter where that is, we have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better.” Only after this contact and acceptance of the moment can we artfully begin the process of change. He continues that after acceptance we can “accept the truth of this moment of our life, learn from it, and move on” ().
How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?~Henry David Thoreau
Counterfactual Thinking Instead of Creating A Better Life
When a struggling marriage generates thoughts of lost opportunity, “If only I married a different person,” we are escaping the current problem. Nothing good happens here. We refer to this as counterfactual thinking in Psychology. Replacing the present with an imaginative alternative sounds nice but our artfully created alternate ending isn’t realistic; different circumstances create a different set of problems that our imagination conveniently omits. Reality can’t compete. We must do the work required for a better relationship in the present, not with a new partner existing only in our imaginations.
“Changing your life for the better is about picking a destination and taking one step at a time to get there. If you try to take shortcuts, you may actually end up making your journey longer and more arduous.”~Barton Goldsmith Ph.D.
Wisdom from the Past
The past does, however, contain wisdom. We learn associations between behaviors and consequences. We see patterns in interactions and reoccurring emotions. By recognizing a chain of events, we can identify incoming storms, halt and change directions before hitting the same dead end. We can intervene with a healthier response, avoiding reoccurring pitfalls. Accordingly, we gain the wisdom to make more constructive decisions.
“The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.”~Richard Ford
We discover much wisdom hiding in the dark corners of the past. Wisdom overlooked in the heat of the moment and the immaturity of our mind still remains for discovery by the careful observer. We don’t simply shrug our shoulders at past hurtful choices but courageously contemplate our roles, gain wisdom and act better in the present.
“Take some time this week to reflect positively on how far you’ve come, and think about where you want to be—and maybe write down the steps you need to take to get there.”~Alyse Kalish
Better Circumstances Doesn’t Equate to a Better Life
When I originally wrote this essay on a better life in 2017, I was still a little bit starry eyed. Perhaps, I still am. I still believe working to create better circumstances is an essential element of human growth. However, emotions are stubborn. The ultimate sense of a better life is an unconscious evaluation of our life circumstances. Our expectations, predictions, and ability to absorb peace from the moment all contribute to this sense of present moment joy.
We get distracted seeking pleasure while sacrificing the deeper joys found in Plato’s concept of eudaimonia. We over exert ourselves solving relationship, financial, and other worldly problems thinking once we resolve these issue we can finally sit back and enjoy life. There is a nasty surprise waiting for those holding this mindset. new problems always fill the void.
Gregg Easterbrook wrote “perhaps, at some structural level, for every old problem solved, a new problem will always be created, meaning we should not expect a better life to improve happiness” (2004, page 83). We do not find the true enjoyment of life in accumulating materialistic items. However, a certain amount of financial security and modern day comforts contribute to our overall satisfaction.
The Paradox of Craving for a Better Life
Another difficulty with achieving a better life is sometimes the mindset that drives us to achieve haunts us after we accomplished the goal. Basically, our craving for more continues. There is no plateau. In Erich Fromm’s wonderful book On Being Human, he wrote “the Buddha was against asceticism. He taught that craving causes suffering, but that there is also a detached, non-greedy having, which can be enjoyed without causing suffering” (2013, Kindle Location 1,625).
As long as we crave more, we can’t completely enjoy what we have. Perhaps, the answer to the riddle lies in shifting attention. We don’t experience every emotion at the same time all day long. We can interrupt our cravings that motivate action with peaceful moments of appreciation and gratitude. In our shifting attention, we find time for joy in the moment—the joy of just being.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
A better life is in store for those willing to accept responsibility, repair hurts, and courageously move forward, using wisdom from mistakes, forgiving the wrongs of others, and escaping destructive environments. We discover what went wrong and then gently move back to the present with our heads held high, grateful for the chance to improve, to live a better life. And here, we can pause, take a deep breath and experience the momentary fascination with this wonders of this magnificent life.
Easterbrook, Gregg (2004). The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Fromm, Erich (1991/2013). On Being Human. Open Road Media.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2005). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindful Meditation in Everyday Life. Hachette Books.