Sunil Jain

December 23, 2023

Staying In the Moment

There is this misconception that in order to stay in the moment, we need to learn how to meditate or go to some fancy retreats. Not that there is anything wrong with those.

Number one thing we can do to improve our staying in the moment is not pull up that phone every few minutes. It is not the momentary distraction that leads to but that acts trains our mind to expect that kick every few minutes in that phone instead of staying in the moment whatever you are doing. It is such an innocuous and deceptive act that we do not realize the damage it does.

It destroys the ability of mind to settle into and pay complete attention to whatever that we may be doing. It does not matter what the activity we may be in. It could be a lunch with a friend or colleague, it may be a walk with your spouse, kid and/or dog. We just can not resist pulling up that phone to may be just look up some information relevant to that conversation. Or it could be a chat message, email or text message. The act of pulling up that phone already destroys the immersivness and purity of the dialogue that was otherwise should be engaging. Except for some one near and dear in danger there is nothing else worthy of destroying that interaction.

This act conditions our brain to be never satisfied with what is happening and available to us in the moment. It conditions us to constantly look for input and stimuli outside of us to make us happy. We are unable to be in state for more that few minutes without putting something inside us constantly. Whether it is some useless clip someone forwarded, a chat mesage or some news item that invariable raised our blood pressure. Or actually putting food inside us purely for entertainment reasons, regardless of us being truly hungry or not.

It is this constant urging for stimuli outside us that is most damaging for us to be truly happy and content. Every tradition in the world as well as modern psychological studies have demonstrated that true happiness lies not in constant gratification of every new desire that springs in us. It is the ability to stay present with the event, whether it is joyful or sad. And not running away from anything that can make us uncomfortable. There is enough scientific literature now on the topic of hedonic set point we all have.

Imagine our brains contain a balance—a scale with a fulcrum in the center. When nothing is on the balance, it’s level with the ground. When we experience pleasure, dopamine is released in our reward pathway and the balance tips to the side of pleasure. The more our balance tips, and the faster it tips, the more pleasure we feel.

Here’s the important thing about the balance: It wants to remain level, that is, in equilibrium. It does not want to be tipped for very long to one side or another. Hence, every time the balance tips toward pleasure, powerful self-regulating regulating mechanisms kick into action to bring it level again. These self-regulating mechanisms do not require conscious thought or an act of will. They just happen, like a reflex.

Neuroscientist Nora Volkow and colleagues have shown that heavy, prolonged consumption of high-dopamine substances eventually leads to a dopamine deficit state. The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind. 

With constant exposure to stimuli, our hedonic setpoint keeps on increasing, we need more and more stimuli to provide same amount of joy.

Here’s the good news. If we wait long enough, our brains (usually) readapt to the absence of the stimuli and we reestablish our baseline homeostasis: a level balance. Once our balance is level, we are again able to take pleasure in everyday, simple rewards. Going for a walk. Watching the sun rise or sunset . Enjoying a meal with friends without distraction. Fully immersed playing our sport of choice or reading your favorite book.

Ultimately true and long lasting source of happiness comes from our ability to seek joy from these simple day to day activities. And staying in the moment, as much as possible. This also builds our attention muscle and sharpen it, which eventually helps with whatever our vocation is, and successful in our carriers. 

In this information economy where our attention is that which is most valuable to companies. And our ability to guard and keep our attention muscle healthy is our most valuable skill. If that skill is intact we can learn anything else, without that we will simply be a consumption machine at mercy of forces outside us.