The Past is your Reservoir of Happiness

Photo courtesy of Tal Bright

Photo courtesy of Tal Bright

Happiness is found in the present moment. At least that is the popular narrative in Western culture where there is a growing appreciation for the benefits of mindfulness.

But I have argued that in addition to “The Power of Now,” there also exists “The Power of Before and After.” We don’t only benefit from the mindful appreciation of the present moment, but also from reminiscing and appreciating our past, or from planning, hoping for, or anticipating the future.

I was reminded of this when I recently re-listened to a wonderful interview that “Dr. Dave” Van Nuys did with psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener on his “Shrink Rap Radio” podcast a couple years ago. Robert Biswas-Diener, who literally wrote the book on Happiness, describes this multi-temporal approach as “an under-appreciated aspect of happiness.” Here’s Robert:

“We have this wonderful capacity as humans to remember the past and also anticipate the future. . . We can actually experience happiness from the past and mine it. Mine past experience, just like being a gold miner, and bring it, drag it into the present and experience it right now, live, in the present.”

We do this by reminiscing, reviewing photos or mementos from past experiences, or sharing stories from our past with others. During the interview, Biswas-Diener shared a story of a joyful experience he had while working in the slums of Calcutta. He remarked that even as he was telling the story, he felt “the same sense of happiness, the novelty, the fun and the enjoyment of it” as if he were reliving the events of several years earlier.

Perhaps even more interesting is that listeners of the story (including me and Dr. Dave) were also able to share in this happiness from Robert’s past, just by virtue of hearing the story.

“I say it here to you today,” said Robert, “and you feel some of that happiness, and you feel it as viscerally and as real and as emotionally present right now as if you were there that day.” Robert was not only reliving some happiness from his past. He was sharing it with the rest of us, spreading and amplifying it.

You can share in some of Biswas-Diener’s happiness by listening to his recent engaging and insightful TEDx talk: “Your happiest days are behind you.

Naturally, this ability to relive our past can be good or bad depending on when, how and how often it is used. Sometimes we bring the past into the future in a negative way, dwelling on past mistakes or ruminating needlessly about bad things that have happened.

But being able to draw on past experiences means that we have an innate ability to bring happiness into the present moment almost any time we choose simply by reaching back to some of our favorite moments from the past.

Biswas-Diener says “we have this huge reservoir of past positive experience, all of us, that we can be tapping into and sharing.” By reaching back and drawing on this reservoir of the greatest experiences we’ve had, and sharing them with others through the telling of stories, we are capable of “raising the net tonnage of happiness in the world.”

References and recommended reading:

Robert Biswas-Diener has just published a new book along with co-author Todd Kashdan called The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment.  If you would like to read along with me (“book club” style) I will invite discussion on it on my facebook page here.

Dr. Dave’s podcast, Shrink Rap Radio, has archives of past interviews (like this one with Dr. Biswas-Diener) and is a veritable treasure trove of fascinating discussions on psychology.

Diener, D. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008).  Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.  Wiley-Blackwell.

McCarthy, J. (2014). Organic Spa Magazine. The Retroactive Bucket List.

Photo Credit: Tal Bright via Compfight cc

By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)




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