Focus on the process, not just the goals; live in the day-to-day and enjoy it — I did not internalize these concepts until recently.
Some other common ideas (e.g. “silence is golden”) were well understood by me during adolescence, but the “live in the now, it’s all you’ve got” mantra was as elusive as it is ubiquitous1.
Here are the quotes from two great articles that clarify this topic.
How Schopenhauer’s thought can illuminate a midlife crisis by Kieran Setiya:
Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.
If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.
We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.
Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel by Tim Urban:
Jack’s difficulties also relate to The Pixel Theory, a phrase coined by Tim Urban during his famous “alone in his apartment in front of the mirror” TED Talk.
Jack sees his life as a rich picture depicting an epic story and assumes that the key to his happiness lies in the broad components of the image.
But this is a mistake, because Jack doesn’t live in the picture’s broad strokes, he lives at all times in a single pixel of the image—a single Today.
So while thousands of Jack’s Todays will, to an outsider from far away, begin to look like a complete picture, Jack spends each moment of his actual reality in one unremarkable Today pixel or another. Jack’s error is brushing off his mundane Wednesday and focusing entirely on the big picture, when in fact the mundane Wednesday is the experience of his actual life.
And his assumption that his future Todays would be as vibrant and rich as the broad picture of his life is misunderstanding the unremarkable nature of a pixel, no matter what one’s life looks like in broad strokes. This assumption leads Jack to feel like his uneventful Today must be an unsatisfactory temporary relationship, when in reality it’s an inevitable and permanent marriage that he must accept and embrace in order to be happy.
As far as what will actually make Jack happier as he lives in his mundane Wednesday, there are a number of scientifically proven things, including spending time with people you like, sleeping well and exercising, doing things you’re good at, and doing kind things for others.
But perhaps the first thing Jack needs to do is learn to feel more gratitude, another scientifically proven route to happiness and the area in which he falls the most woefully short. Jack spends so much of his time looking up at the great things that will come his way and planning his future happiness and not nearly enough time looking down and thinking about how badly he used to want so many of the things he currently has.
My guess it’s because it goes against basic evolutionary goals of staying alive long enough to reproduce: you just don’t enjoy the sunset while the woods are dark and full of terrors. ↩