Live life now, not in the future

The question implicit in many people's early ponderings this month is essentially this: How do I - or how should we, collectively - plan to use the year?

Your answer might involve getting fit or finding a soulmate or making a million dollars selling virtual kale snacks online to idiots.

Or it might focus on activism or just on getting by and staying moderately sane in trying times.

But it's worth noting that all these different goals share the same underlying assumption, one so basic it's easy to miss - that time is best approached, in the first place, as something you use.

But is it? The problem with treating every year (or week, or hour) as something you're supposed to put to use is that you end up living permanently focused on the future.

The more strenuously you try to get something out of life, the more emotionally invested you become in reaching the point at which you've succeeded in doing so - which is, necessarily, never now.

In other words - try too hard to make life meaningful and it becomes impossible to derive any meaning from your present-moment life.

British economist John Maynard Keynes articulated the matter well in a famous 1930 essay (in which he did, admittedly, also claim we'd be working only 15 hours a week by this point in history).

"The 'purposive' man," he wrote, "is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat's kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens' kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom".

The upside of this attitude is that you get to feel more in charge of your life; the downside is that you never really get to enjoy it.

Certain spiritual teachers, adherents of the philosophy known as "non-duality", would go further. They'd claim that the whole idea of "using time" is based on an illusory separation between "you" and the time you're attempting to use.

 
 
 

From your first-person perspective, all there is at any given moment in time is just whatever you're experiencing - a tingling in your leg, the sight of your kitchen table, the car alarm going off outside, a vague irritation at being asked to contemplate these kooky New Age ideas.

And isn't it a little odd to then decide that some of these arising perceptions are you - who must then use the other ones, in some particular way, in order to have used time well? Why not put that stress-inducing notion aside?

In her book on non-duality, Radically Condensed Instructions For Being Just As You Are, Jennifer Matthews gets straight to the point: "We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket situated outside of life, (to which we could) steal life's provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside."

Partly, I confess, I like this because it reminds me of the comic Steven Wright's line: "You can't have everything - where would you put it?"

But it's also a helpful pointer in its own right - to the truth that, ultimately, the only purpose of any of this is, well, this.

THE GUARDIAN

• Oliver Burkeman is a Guardian writer based in New York. He is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 12, 2020, with the headline 'Live life now, not in the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe