I can remember the first time I heard the words. I was 16 and miserable because it was termtime and I was in a long-distance relationship with a 20-year-old who lived in London while I was 200 miles up north in the suburbs of Liverpool. I was moping around the house and my mum, probably fed up of living in a waiting room for teenage love, told me to "stop wishing your life away". It had never occurred to me that was what I was doing. The feminist inside me now wants to scream back at myself "You don’t need a man to enjoy life" and I realise how frustrating it must have been for my mum to see a teenager with free time stretching before her, moping.
The second time was as an adult, when I had a full-time job I hated. The week was something to get through until Friday evening came around, when I would reward myself with a night that would leave me comatose for a good day or two, then repeat the cycle again the following week. My friend, who was far more enlightened than me, pointed out that I was hating my way through the five midweek days, and then, relieved that I’d gotten through them, promptly ruining the next two days for myself too. That’s seven days of misery with a small hiatus of a Friday night out.
My friend advised that I look at what I could do on a Monday or a dreaded Wednesday that would make those days enjoyable. Such obvious advice. But when you’ve decided to be miserable, sometimes you need to be reminded that you can, if you want to, try to be happier. Also that it is possible to pull yourself out of the churn of living for the weekend. Really.
"What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. This is why Gretchen’s books are such viral successes; she’s not suggesting an Eat Pray Love adventure that takes you through three continents and 5,000 dollars. Instead Gretchen’s words are all about finding happiness in the everyday; it's not about waiting for a big event, or a huge change to come along and make everything better. Make Tuesday your fried-chicken-for-lunch day. Walk to work. Don’t save clothes for best. Buy yourself a fantastic umbrella. Keep Tangfastics in your bag. Tell someone you love their shoes.
Whenever I hear a pregnant friend wish for their baby to come quickly, I have to catch myself before I chastise them. I don’t want to warn a mum-to-be that this is the last time they’ll be alone for a while (because I know I’ll sound bitter, which I am) and that they really should be binge-watching The Handmaid's Tale rather than wishing their life away until due date. It’s the same when I see a young adult impatient to get school out of the way – seriously kid, you have your whole life left to be an adult! Life is a series of phases, and some of them you can’t get back.
We constantly hand over our happiness to future events. We clock-watch, we believe a better life exists a few hours or a few days from now and how sad is that? It’s not about taking the joy out of looking forward to something – if texting your friend '4 slps til beefa!' makes you happy, do it – but it is about being thankful for being alive now, even if you are three hours away from the burrito you packed for lunch or eight days away from payday.
Not to get all melodramatic, but our time on this earth is finite. When I think about how frustrated my mum must have been watching me waste teenage years waiting, I know my future self will be as frustrated if I don’t try and inject some positive thinking, some daydreaming, and perhaps a baby pink Hunza swimming costume into my life right now.
There are two annoyingly useful questions often found on Buddhist blogs:
How happy are you right now?
How happy do you think you will be in the future?
Apparently – and I hope this doesn’t sound too smug – the correct answer to the second question is the answer you gave to the first. Go on, roll those eyes, but there is some truth here.
When I see a message reminding me to be mindful or present, something about it doesn’t stick. It might be the language or maybe I’m just a bit too basic to really grasp what it means to 'be present'. Yet a saying that feels straight from a fridge magnet or a baby boomer's Pinterest board really does it for me. I get that it feels a little like I’m trying to revive 'Keep Calm and Carry On', but really what I’m trying to say is that although our parents' generation might not have had the vocabulary to talk about mental health, they had their own ways of encouraging us to be present and mindful. So in the words of a trite Christmas cracker manifesto: Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, guys.