Why Does the Past Seem Better Than The Present?

Why Does the Past Seem Better Than The Present?

‘I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.’ It’s a quote from Andy Bernard, a character from The Office, that resonates with a lot of people. For one reason or another, we often perceive that our past is better, or was more enjoyable, than our present is. But truthfully, more often than not, the past wasn’t actually better or more enjoyable; it’s just that we seem to remember it that way, and this occurs for a variety of reasons.

You look to the past with a sense of certainty that the present can’t provide – When you reflect on your past, you’re able to look back with a complete sense of certainty of what is going to happen next. You might look back to some fun times with friends, or a professional accomplishment, and reminisce about those fun times knowing full well with the benefit of hindsight how it was going to play out. But in the present moment, you can’t do this because life is full of uncertainties, sources of discomfort, and stress.

We crave a sense of certainty in our lives. We want to know that our partner will love us forever, that we’ll get that dream job that we covet and are striving for, and that we’ll always have a roof over our head. But unfortunately, there’s no way for someone to promise us any of these with 100 per cent certainty that any of these will happen, and that can be scary. But you need to be able to embrace this uncertainty, because rarely, if ever, will something be guaranteed in your life.

As you experience more, it takes more to ‘wow’ – When you’re younger, it’s more common for you to experience things for the first time, and those initial experiences set benchmarks for your next set of experiences. This can create expectations, and it can also lead you to inadvertently comparing current experiences to prior experiences. This can lead to you getting caught up in the expectation gap or the comparison gap. Does this mean that the current moment isn’t fun? No, not at all, it just means that you’re comparing the current moment to one from the past that might have ‘wowed’ you a bit more. So instead of comparing the present to the past, simply engage in some binary thinking and ask yourself ‘Am I enjoying the present moment? Yes or no?’ If yes, then you’re golden. If no, then find something that will be able to help you answer ‘yes’ to this question.

You’re not here to outdo others, you’re here to live a fulfilling life of your own.

It wasn’t as easy to engage in social comparison in the past –  It goes without saying that we live in the social media age. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram either weren’t as populated or didn’t even exist ten years ago. While it’s hard to break a habit, you do need to minimise your social comparison tendencies because life isn’t a competition among others, but rather it’s you competing against yourself (side note: I’m not advocating that you eliminate social media usage from your life, I’m just suggesting that you remind yourself why you use social media and that you have a clear purpose for using social media). Focus on what you’re doing, and what’s bringing you a sense of joy, happiness, and fulfilment because your purpose in life isn’t to outdo others, but rather it’s to live a fulfilling life of your own.

Your perspective of the past has shifted –  As you get older and you gain more life experience, the way you perceive your past changes. As you mature, you begin to recognise the life lessons that you’ve learned through your past experiences, and this can influence the way you look back at your past. It’s very common for someone to look back at prior stressors with a mentality of ‘That actually wasn’t so bad after all’ and have a new-found confidence that they can handle it if they were to face them again. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you experienced the past so favourably as you experienced those stressors first-hand the first time around, it just means that you’d have more confidence now if you were faced with a similar predicament.

Ultimately, here are the main takeaways:

  • Be able to be comfortable with discomfort. You might not be able to perceive the present moment with the same sense of certainty that reflect on the past with, but you can improve your ability to be comfortable with the discomfort and uncertainties that the present moment might throw your way.
  • Minimise comparison. You’re not here to outdo others, you’re here to live a fulfilling life of your own.
  • Manage your expectations. Not everything you do will be the best thing you’ve ever done or the best thing you’ve ever accomplished, and that’s fine. Life is going to have highlight reel moments, and some less than stellar moments.
  • Engage in binary thinking. Shift your focus from the quality of what you’re doing to the fact that you’re simply doing it.

Matthew Buckley is an Organisational Psychologist.  He received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2010, and received his master’s degree in Organisational Psychology with a concentration in Conflict Management from the University of New Haven in 2015. His main areas of interest include career counselling, conflict management, emotional intelligence, employee retention, leadership and management, morale and motivation, personnel selection and recruitment, and self-promotion.

 


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