Adapting a Past, Present, and Future Mindset

Many of us have been informed of the importance to live in the present moment, to forget the past, and to stop worrying about the future. While these suggestions are usually met with good intention and considered to be fairly good advice, this type of thinking is actually only relevant during certain circumstances. In a given situation, it might in fact be more important to consider your past, or place a greater emphasis on thinking about the future rather than the present moment.

If this seems contradicting to what you typically hear about in the mindfulness media, you’re right, it is. But I’d like to shed some light on the often mis-conceptualized idea of always “living in the moment” and instead give evidence as to when you might benefit from spending time more so in a past or future context.   

Let’s first look into how the past, present, and future orientations are defined.

The Past

A “past” mindset is often characterized by nostalgic memories and pleasurable views of previous family and friend relationships, with happiness seeming to derive from warm, personal interactions. However, with one’s past also comes the chance of holding onto negative emotions, thoughts and feelings, anxieties, sorrows that we may experience in life. Additionally, there are also cultural differences when having a “past” mindset. For instance, from a Western (American) perspective, the “past” orientation can produce a conservative, cautious approach to life with an unwillingness to experience new things. This is often thought of as a negative mindset. From an Eastern (Asian, Indigenous) perspective, paying attention to the past might ensure the passing down of traditions and rituals from generation to generation. This instead is viewed as a positive mindset to have.

The Present

When describing a person who lives in the here and now from a Western perspective, one typically derives pleasure from highly intense activities, thrills and excitements, and is open to adventures of the moment, often placing value on experiences of present gratification. This approach could sometimes be harmful and detrimental to the person and their future when “living in the moment” involves short-term pleasures like drugs, partying, risky driving, sexual encounters, etc. The Western perspective reflects the fact that a person may not necessarily think ahead about potential liabilities of such excitement activities.

When taking an Eastern perspective however, living in the moment may be centered on the concepts of calmness, meditation, flow, and mindfulness, and is not associated with potential detrimental effects on an individual or their future. It is more so interpreted as paying less attention to time as it relates to a clock, and instead view time as related to what is happening in the moment. In this way, the practice of being “mindful” from Eastern cultures is becoming more attractive to people in the West (Hence, the growing interest of adapting mindful practices, such as the advice and tips listed in the Mindfulness by Paula blog!).

The Future

A person with a future orientation often thinks ahead to the possible consequences of their actions, forms clear goals, and strategizes to reach those goals. They’re more likely to engage in preventative behaviours to lessen the chance of “bad” things happening in the future. Such people are typically successful in life’s endeavours- academics, jobs, sports, health, etc. Some future-mindset people however don’t experience a lot of pleasure from simply being with others or recalling previous social activities. Additionally, embracing a future orientation may not be viewed positively by all cultures.

Reading through these three perspectives, which one do you think you have? Chances are, we all take on a past, present, and future mindset at various times of the day and may switch between them during different situations of our lives.

Finding Balance

The key to having balance in these three perspectives of time is in your ability to use the mindset that best fits your situation. This means, “Working hard when it’s time to work. Playing intensively when it’s time to play. Actively listening and socializing with others while gathering together. Laughing at jokes and the craziness of life. Indulging in desire and passion” – as quoted by Boniwell and Zimbardo. Being flexible and capable of switching to an appropriate temporal perspective results in the most productive approach to how we spend our time.

Having said that, our cultural influences, societies, and communities may affect which mindset we think may be best to choose in a given scenario:

Western cultures tend to place a priority on mastering their future, emphasizing action or goal-oriented activities, and may be judged by what they do or accomplish, more so than by who they are as a person. They might be more focused on controlling their surrounding environment and place a great importance on planning for their future.

Eastern cultures tend to view time as a plentiful resource, with human relationships taking priority. They tend to view the self and other people as interrelated, placing importance on interdependence and interacting with people. A common view is that the experience of suffering is a necessary part of the human existence.

Considering the cultural context that may be applicable to you, it’s important to embrace a positive psychological mindset. One perspective may be ideal for you, but not for someone else. In the end, be true to yourself when thinking about which frame of mind to adapt in any point in time, whether that may be cherishing your past, learning to be mindful in the present, or having hope for the future.



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