Everyone has heard the conventional wisdom that cautions against “living in the past,” and stresses the importance of making the most of present moments. But sometimes, the key to being happy now can be found by looking back.
Of course, there is a big difference between “looking back” and “running back at full speed, sitting down, and stubbornly refusing to ever move forward again.” Thinking about the past is dangerous in that second scenario because it is likely to lead to one, or both, of the following problems:
1. Fixation on regrets. It is easy to destroy the opportunity for present happiness by replaying the disappointments of the past over and over in our minds. Obsessing over things we wish had gone differently tends to result in even more regrets as our obsession causes us to continually miss chances to build a better life.
2. Mourning the way things used to be. When the present is less than ideal, it is tempting to wallow in sadness because we miss the happy moments of the past. But this comparison between “then” and “now” can trap us into believing that nothing could ever measure up to the good old days and cause us to overlook new joys.
However, by taking the healthier approach of merely glancing backwards, we can actually use the past to help maximize present opportunities for happiness. This way, the two problems above can be reframed as more productive courses of action:
1. Learning from mistakes. It is useful to remember things that have previously caused unhappiness, so we can make a note of what to do differently in the future. Memories of past conflicts, poor decisions, and moments of grief can serve as incentive to try new approaches that might lead to better results. Looking back gives us the opportunity to evaluate potential flaws in our current approach to life, and to correct those flaws before they are added to our lists of past mistakes.
2. Finding sources of positivity. Sometimes the present seems to come up a bit short on reasons to be happy. Past joys can provide reassurance that the world isn’t all bad, and the warm fuzzy feelings inspired by fond memories can give us strength to face the tough stuff. Not only that, awareness of things that made us happy before can guide us in the right direction as we consider what might make us happiest now.
Keeping in touch with the past allows us to preserve the best parts of our life and avoid recreating the worst parts. We just have to be careful not to let a casual, “keeping in touch,” relationship with the past escalate into an overly clingy relationship filled with resentment or unhealthy dependency.