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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Column: Conscious engagement

I like to eavesdrop when I’m sitting at the café pretending to get work done. The other day I heard a guy say something that made me think about how stability and continuity give purpose to our lives: “I have to have some sort of project that I’m working on if I want to be at my happiest.”

When most of us were little, we thought we’d be the happiest kids in the world if we could just stay at home and watch cartoons while eating junk food all day. Come middle school, we start to realize that succumbing to such passive indulgence for an extended period of time just feels gross (Ferris Bueller might be one exception).

Now if given the choice between a day of cookie dough and TV and a day of being out and about, getting things done and drinking lattes, I’d pick the latter. I could take maybe an hour of the aforementioned cookie dough indulgence, but no more.

I am willing to bet that the logic as to why we develop this aversion to more negative, self-defeating habits while adopting a preference for more positive tendencies can be explained by an evolutionary perspective; we gravitate toward what ultimately makes us feel good in the long run.

Alcoholics and other individuals who engage in prolonged self-defeating habits have a less developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that oversees and regulates functioning. This region of the brain is also under-developed in small children, which could explain our infant fantasies about video games and tubs of ice cream (okay, I’ll admit that scenario sounds enticing were it only to occur once in a blue moon. But I’m talking about how most wouldn’t condone it as an everyday lifestyle pattern).

As a young adult, I agree with what I overheard at the coffee shop. More and more now, I’m finding that I benefit from having some form of project in my life, to construct ongoing stability and provide tangible purpose. Many of us won’t explicitly state it, but I think constantly having something to do stops us from feeling purposeless and invisible.

“I’m usually pretty stressed out but I’m always happy,” the guy said. “Take away the stress and I actually get more anxious.” It’s akin to anticipating the storm when the waters are calm. Like him, without the ongoing structure, I don’t have anything tangible to put my effort into, and will in turn start to feel anxious.

Similar to the coffee guzzler, I enjoy being stressed if it means I’m engaged with what I’m doing. I love having every ounce of concentration and each one of my senses geared toward what I’m taking on in the moment.

I love it when I don’t space out (with lack of structure and conscious engagement, I easily zone out). I love riding the wave of life where the past is submerged and the future is of no concern, where I’m kept grounded at the exact point in time and space that my physical body is occupying. This being said, there is a fine line between being overwhelmed by daily tasks and having enough daily tasks to give your life structure.

Many present-focused therapists say that most of us have a difficult time living in the present. While some of us are stuck in the past, others constantly plan for the future. This is especially true with people who demonstrate depressive or anxious tendencies. People with depressed tendencies are prone to living in the past, while anxious people constantly look ahead, worrying about what is to come.

“So often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past,” said Jay Dixit, who writes for Psychology Today.

The most common advice for staying grounded in the present is to pay attention to what’s going on around you, rather than retreating into your thoughts.

“Focus less on what’s going on in your mind and more on what’s going on in the room, less on your mental chatter and more on yourself as part of something,” Dixit wrote. “Worry, by its very nature, means thinking about the future – and if you hoist yourself into awareness of the present moment, worrying melts away.”

Dixit uses the word mindfulness to define this state of active, open attention on the present.

“When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experiences,” he said.

Many therapists choose to apply this Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness to their work. They will say it’s especially easy to be caught in these dwelling and fretting tendencies when there’s too much time on one’s hands.

The key, therefore, is to consciously engage yourself. When you start to feel aimless, sculpt your own purpose. If you haven’t snagged a job or an internship this summer, take up a hobby and stick to it. Make friends centered around your activity so you’ll have more incentive to show up for it. Structure guides one toward living in the moment.

ELENI STEPHANIDES can be reached at estephanides@ucdavis.edu.

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