Ruth WhippmanActually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment
The New York Times Magazine
By RUTH WHIPPMAN
NOV. 26, 2016
I’m at the kitchen sink, after a long day of work and kids and chores and the emotional exhaustion of a toxic election season, attempting to mindfully focus on congealed SpaghettiOs. My brain flits to the Netflix queue. I manhandle my thoughts back to the leaky orange glob in front of me. My brain flits to the president-elect.
I’m making a failed attempt at “mindful dishwashing,” the subject of a how-to article an acquaintance recently shared on Facebook. According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully “in” the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg. Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.
Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present. The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments. Corporate America offers its employees mindfulness training to “streamline their productivity,” and the United States military offers it to the Marine Corps. Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on “mindfulness products.” “Living in the Moment” has monetized its folksy charm into a multibillion-dollar spiritual industrial complex.
So does the moment really deserve its many accolades? It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. Those for whom a given moment is more likely to be “sun-dappled yoga pose” than “hour 11 manning the deep-fat fryer.”
On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it. As anyone who has ever maintained that they will one day lose 10 pounds or learn Spanish or find the matching lids for the Tupperware will know, we often anticipate our futures with more blind optimism than the reality is likely to warrant.
Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok, or in Don Draper’s bed, or finally telling your elderly relative that despite her belief that “no one born in the 1970s died,” using a car seat isn’t spoiling your child. It’s hard to see why greater happiness would be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to outstare a SpaghettiO.
What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance. Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.
But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class. The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.” Now mindfulness has taken its place as the focus of our appetite for inner self-improvement. Where once problems ranging from bad marriages and work stress to poverty and race discrimination were routinely dismissed as a failure to “think positive,” now our preferred solution to life’s complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful.
This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.
It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.
In reality, despite many grand claims, the scientific evidence in favor of the Moment’s being the key to contentment is surprisingly weak. When the United States Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality conducted an enormous meta-analysis of over 18,000 separate studies on meditation and mindfulness techniques, the results were underwhelming at best.
Although some of the studies did show that mindfulness meditation or other similar exercises might bring some small benefits to people in comparison with doing nothing, when they are compared with pretty much any general relaxation technique at all, including exercise, muscle relaxation, “listening to spiritual audiotapes” or indeed any control condition that gives equal time and attention to the person, they perform no better, and in many cases, worse.
So perhaps, rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere.
is the author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.”