Recently, I visited Liseberg — a stunning amusement park in Göteborg, Sweden. It promised an absurd amount of fun. But when I got on the most popular roller coaster — a majestic, green, space-themed colossus of steel — something strange happened:
I was stressed out.
Not because I’m scared of rollercoasters or heights (it’s quite the opposite, actually). But rather because I was overly aware that this precious experience would slip through my hands like fine sand. And I was terrified not to be in the moment for it all.
The seatbelts fastened. Be mindful, I told myself. The cars started rumbling, and the g-force pressed me against the seat. You should enjoy this. Take it all in. This moment will never come back.
But when the wagon skated back into the station, the uncomfortable truth occurred to me. I wasn’t at all in the moment. I was only thinking about being in the moment. And this realization worsened my rumination — I actually beat myself up about missing this chance to be fully present.
Living in the moment can be outstanding life advice. But too often, we romanticize the glamorous benefits while completely neglecting the pitfalls.
Here are three huge problems with being in the moment — and three better alternatives.
1. Being in the Moment Is Redundant
In The Comfort Book, Matt Haig argues that, by design, we’re always in the moment. Living in the past or future is impossible because life is simply a series of moments.
One. after. the. other.
Sure, you might not be aware of this exact moment. You may think about the past or the future. But ultimately, your mind is not a time machine. Even if you’re distracted like a playful puppy, you’re still experiencing an unstoppable sequence of moments.
Presently and infinitely.
Put differently, it’s impossible not to be in the moment. And so, the pursuit of being in the moment is forcing something that’s already there. It’s like trying to feel gravity even though the Earth will — rest assured — never fail to pull you down. It’s a law of nature. If you force yourself to experience gravity, you’re doomed to hit the ground.
So why pretend? Why add another layer of pressure when our lives are constantly taking place in the present anyway?
2. Being in the Moment Drives Stress and Failure
Obviously, the idea of being in the moment goes deeper than realizing you’re living in the present. It’s also about not getting distracted. Staying focused. Squeezing the most out of every single second. And sure, these ideas are beautiful and worth striving for.
But let’s face it:
They’re also impractical, exhausting, and downright impossible.
The human mind is wired to drift off. After all, our ability to process the past and plan the future makes our species unique. And as a result, ruminations and distractions are part of daily life. No amount of meditation can change that.
The underlying problem?
A mountain of advice has brainwashed us into believing that it is, in fact, possible to always be in the moment. This creates stress. Anxiety. Fear. Living in the moment becomes yet another inexhaustible bullet on our to-do lists.
Matt Haig sums it up nicely in The Comfort Book:
“The pressure to live so deeply in every moment could also make us feel like we have one more thing to fail at.”
And here’s the great irony: The more we try to be present every second, the less likely we’ll actually experience presence. Alan Watts calls this ‘the backwards law’ — the harder we chase something, the less likely we’ll succeed. It’s exactly what happened to me on that rollercoaster in Liseberg. I was so caught up in thinking that I forgot to let myself go. To be.
The good news?
There’s a flip side to this law. If you take off the pressure, your chances of rooting yourself in the moment are much, much higher. Ironically, being present is also about allowing yourself not to be present.
3. Being in the Moment Can Feel Excruciating
Lastly, the problem isn’t just that we’re told to live in every single moment. We’re also told to relish all of these moments. To always carry a slight grin on our faces. To be satisfied. To live life to the fullest, no matter our emotional state.
Unfortunately, it’s yet another utopian ideal.
The day after Liseberg, I experienced one of my lowest moods in years. Heck, maybe this was caused by the angst that all these beautiful moments went by too fast — and that I wasn’t present for it all. But either way, I could narrow down my feelings to one word:
Now, the standard McMindfulness advice is to sit with uncomfortable emotions. To avoid pushing them away and instead, go through them until they’re gone. To observe them without judgment.
I partly disagree.
See, I do think we should identify, grasp, and feel our emotions. And we definitely shouldn’t numb ourselves at the first sign of discomfort. But once we’ve internalized our situation, distractions can actually be… healthy.
Why? Because our emotions are often useless for the present moment. In particular, I’ve noticed this with the dread of uncertainty. For example, I tend to dramatize reality when a loved one doesn’t answer my calls for a long time. I spin up bizarre storylines inside my head:
Do they hate me?
Did they receive horrible news?
Did they get seriously injured in a car crash?
But luckily, the answer is usually simpler than that. Their phone died, they had no reception, or they were busy. And so, staying in the moment while catastrophizing irrational worries wastes precious emotional energy.
So, by all means, be present with your uncomfortable emotions. Feel them deeply. Release them into your journal. But don’t push yourself to endure the ordeal of your painful feelings.
In moments where staying present feels agonizing, it’s okay to indulge in Netflix, comfort food, or other distractions.
There’s a Better Way
This isn’t about “bashing” the concept of living in the present. Instead, it’s about finding a more balanced approach. After all, the most fulfilling periods of my life were those when I was really there. But without trying too much.
So here are three ideas that have helped me to live in the moment effortlessly:
- Abandon the idea of being in the moment. Instead, think about practicing mindfulness. This is the simple exercise to engage all of your senses. To be aware of what you’re doing, what’s happening around you, and where you are. To observe without judgment.
- Don’t be present all the time. Instead, nail down a few micro-moments throughout your day to be mindful. Examples: feel the warmth and scent of your coffee, notice the sensation of brushing your teeth, or smell the fresh air whenever you go outside.
- Don’t force yourself to enjoy every moment. Life will smash ugly surprises in your face, and pretending to be zen in these instances will only make them worse. So, allow yourself to get carried away in difficult moments. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re angry, be angry. And if nothing helps, find a (healthy) distraction.
And please, if you catch yourself being absent-minded, be smarter than me. Don’t see that as a failure. Because ultimately, being present is not another competition you have to win. Rather it’s an offer to see what life really is: an unstoppable sequence of beautiful and challenging moments.
So if you ever happen to go on a (proverbial) rollercoaster, don’t worry about being present. Instead, let yourself go. Get swept away by the ride.