We all experience peak moments of exhilaration in our lives, but hanging on to them too tightly can keep us from seeing the beauty each new moment brings. To achieve happiness, we need to let the good times go.
Imagine being over the literal moon with profound amazement and joy — and then being back from the moon, eating a sandwich, sorting socks, trying to find something to watch on TV ….
When the first humans walked on the moon in 1969, the whole world tuned in to witness the historic event. Neil Armstrong was the first person to plant his boot in moondust, then leap from one footstep to its distant next. Can you imagine the feeling — the thrill and the fear of the leaps?
But reportedly, life walking on the moon was hard for the astronauts. After enjoying that peak event, they found that nothing else measured up. Despite their world renown and their immense personal accomplishments, these astronauts reportedly sank into deep depression, Earth’s gravitational pull just a little stronger for them than it is for the rest of us. The question on their minds was inevitably, “What do I do now?” or “How do I top that?”
The astronauts were comparing their present moment with their life’s most profound and invigorating moment — and not surprisingly, the present moment lost.
Hardly anyone has visited the moon, but we’ve all had peak experiences — moments in life that are incomparably grand. Maybe we felt this way on our wedding day, or the birth of our first child. Maybe it was the graduation we worked so hard for, or a perfect vacation moment, or something else altogether, unique to us.
When I was a young man, I worked very hard one summer to pay for a trip to Europe the next. I remember arriving in Morocco with a friend of mine from Turkey. We were able to find a very inexpensive hotel in Tangier, and that night we sat up for hours and drank mint tea together while we talked throughout the night.
I was raised in the Midwest — Iowa, to be precise — and I had never traveled far from home, but in that moment in a Moroccan hotel lobby, the world seemed incomparably vast and varied, but at the same, just a bit cozier, too. It is an experience I have returned to again and again many times throughout my life.
If we really reflect on our lives, we will realize that we’ve had many memories like this that we cherish and hang on to. These are the truly exquisite moments in life, and they are rich in detail in our imagining. I can easily remember the aroma of the tea and the expressions on my companions’ faces in the lamplight.
But our best memories come at a cost, as the astronauts’ post-orbital experiences demonstrate. The fact is, those burnished visions of life’s most beautiful moments can cast a harsh light on the present day.
Our lives are meant to be joyful. You might say happiness is our birthright. We don’t inhabit this flesh just so we can drag it from place to place or task to task. We came here to live life as the fullest expression of our spirits.
When we dwell on peak experiences, whether that’s humanity’s first moonwalk or a perfect conversation with a stranger, the result is that our ordinary lives can look … well, ordinary, by comparison. Focusing too much on the moments our happiness was brightest steals some attention from the now. And there are few things as beautiful and as full of promise as the now.
Right at this moment, anything could happen in your life. The next person you encounter could alter your life. The next idea that comes to you could change the world. The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen might be the very next thing you look at.
I have often said here that to have happiness and peace in our lives, we must live in the present moment. When we have these exquisite moments, we want to hang on to them, recreate them — have them back. And if we compare the present moment to our fondest memories, the present moment is going to lose because these past moments are so wonderful.
The fact is that to be happy, we must live in the present moment and find something beautiful to be with now. If our efforts are focused on finding the beauty in the now, we are going to find the peace and happiness we desire. However, if we compare our present lives with past exquisite moments, we run the risk of feeling depressed or even miserable.
It’s strange to think, but reminiscing about the best days of our lives does not bring us the happiness we expect. Even while we are making these memories, we may pause to think that we might look back on them one day and re-experience some of the pleasure of the moment.
It is, of course, fine to spend moments in reflection on our happiest moments of life. I would never encourage you to forget looking into the face of your newborn child or marveling at a glorious sunset over a mountain. But it is when we dwell in our memories that we run the risk of missing out on the pleasures of the everyday.
There is a popular trope in entertainment, and it depicts the high school athlete whose body has gone soft as he recalls his glory days on the field of play. Think of the character Uncle Rico from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, or imagine Hank Hill from the TV show King of the Hill. These are characters who lose themselves in the memory of their football glory.
Although the characters in question, and countless others like them in popular culture, take pleasure in revisiting their glory days, those moments of athletic achievement seem to take the place of other progress in their lives. One might well wonder where these characters would go if they were free to move past their happy memories into a happy present — one that is unencumbered by a single particularized memory of what achievement looks like.
The world of popular culture provides multiple other examples of pinnacle moments overshadowing people’s present peace and happiness. We need only consider the situation faced by many child stars who grow up to an adulthood that includes less attention and praise. It is not unusual for a former child actor to turn to substances, such as drugs or alcohol, to regain the good feelings they once attained through adulation.
Similarly, some rock stars have their moment and then fade into obscurity. It is not uncommon for someone we know as a “one-hit wonder” to face deep depression when the attention and praise are gone, and again, substance abuse is often the result.
But why substance abuse? The reason people turn to it is for the high it provides. Particularly with a drug like heroin, the introduction to the effects of the drug may include a euphoria like none ever experienced by the user before. Often, drug users try to “chase” that high, and with each subsequent use of the drug, they are trying to achieve the same kind of euphoria.
The blissful initial high is so desirable to some that they are even willing to go through excruciating periods of withdrawal just so that they can experience a sensation like their first high once more.
For some people, chasing peak moments of maximum exhilaration is part of a mental health disorder known as bipolar disorder, or what used to be referred to as manic-depression. For these people, the highs are very high, and the lows can be quite low, even to the point of depression or suicidal ideation. For those with bipolar disorder, medicine can be highly effective — yet the manic, ebullient moments are so heady and desirable that patients may not want to take medicine that raises their lows while also leveling out the highs. Extreme pleasure can feel worth the cost of the crash that might follow.
Most of us don’t have bipolar disorder, but we do know what it feels like to hang on to our past exquisite moments, which can lead us to compare and contrast the present moment with our own exhilarating highs. As I mentioned before, the present moment can only come up short in that kind of comparison, which is why it is so important to let the good times go.
We don’t have to suffer like that. We can let our pinnacle moments go. We’re thankful for them; we’re blessed when they come again. But we don’t have to hang onto them.
What’s the alternative? We can look to the model of children, who are often able to find pleasure in each moment. For a young child, each moment feels new, and each new pleasure is a new source of joy. Our goal should be to cultivate a childlike heart.
Life can be beautiful when we get back to the here and now and live well in the present moment. The truth is that life always has something beautiful for us to be with if we just give our attention to it. We don’t need to ignore those things that are hard, but we need to recognize that life can always be beautiful if we open our eyes to what each new moment has to offer.
Even when we are lucky enough to have those beautiful peak experiences — and we can be confident that these will come throughout our lives — we can let them go so that we can make way for the next adventure that life is going to bring. We can find beauty in this moment, and then we can take another breath and find beauty in the next, and the one after that.
When we put these moments together, we can say with confidence that we have known happiness, even if we have never made it anywhere near the moon in our own life’s trajectory. We can be assured that when we take our last breath, we can offer our thanks and say with assurance, “That was a good life.”