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32. Relating to the Situation

32. Relating to the Situation

I seek the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity prayer

This area examines three elements that define how we relate to our situation: perception of the situation (including the present, past and future), the basic attitudes (acceptance and rejection) and also evaluation of the situation (or life satisfaction).

Before we start, it would be good to first write down a little bit about your life situation (it doesn’t need to be long – make a summary rather than a novel); you will find it useful later on.

Perception of the situation

The more we are aware of our situation the more we can do something about it, which strengthens our sense that we are in charge. Research suggests that an ambiguous state of affairs is often more stressful than knowing even a negative outcome.38 However, there are two obstacles to perceiving our life situation accurately: seeing what is not there and not seeing what is.

Seeing what is not there

We sometimes see what we want to see or what we think that we see, rather than what is really there. How many times have you jumped to conclusions or have perceived a situation in the wrong light? Here is an example: a spot appeared on your face and you go out. You think everybody is looking at your spot, but is this true? Well, the only way to find out is by separating the perception of the situation (what is really happening) from thoughts and emotions (e.g. worrying that everybody will be looking at your spot). The exercise below (never mind its long name) is designed to help us learn to bracket what we add to our perception and see what is really there – which can also be refreshing! Once you get a handle of it, you can apply the same to more complex situations.

31. The Future

31. The Future

The future influences the present just as much as the past.
Friedrich Nietzsche (19c German philosopher)

Awareness of the future strongly affects our lives. And yet, the future does not exist – it is our mental construct that may match to some extent with what will happen. The trick is to minimise discrepancies between these two. To do this, we shall examine some common ways of constructing the future (expectations, predictions and hopes), but let’s start with some reflections first.

Reflecting on the future

  • To what extent do you think the future is determined? A fatalistic view is that everything is determined; on the other hand a sceptic would say that we can’t even be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow. Where do you stand in this respect?
  • How do you feel about the future? Look forward to or dread it?
  • Is the future more important, less important or as important as the past and the present for you?
  • Beside your personal future, do you care about the future of your immediate surroundings, humankind or the planet?

You can use this exercise to clarify your view of the future:

Looking in to see out: 

  • Draw a road or roads that symbolise your future.
  • When you finish, analyse your drawing. For example, a road can be straight or wavy, rough or smooth, busy or empty, going up or down. What does it tell you about how you see and feel about your future? There may be a few roads going in different directions. Where do they end? Which possibility do each of them represent? It is important to notice what is missing too (e.g. are there people, cars, trees?)
  • After analysing the drawings, consider if you would like to change or add anything.

30. The Past

30. The Past

Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.
Alan Lightman (physicist and novelist)

The past affects practically every aspect of ourselves, including our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, so it is well worthwhile paying attention to it. Needless to say, the past can’t be changed, but this doesn’t mean that we are completely helpless in this respect. How and to what extent your past influences your life depends on how you relate to it. We will consider here both unhelpful and helpful ways of relating to our past experiences.

Unhelpful ways of relating to the past

Avoiding the past: these are some typical examples:

  • ‘I don’t want to think about what happened that day’
  • ‘I don’t remember what happened’

Running away from troubling past experiences can indeed provide a temporary relief. Suppressing intrusive thoughts about the past may also be necessary when the present situation requires our full attention (e.g. it is not good idea to think about your childhood memories while taking an exam). However, if we keep avoiding the past, related emotions will continue to have an effect ‘below the surface’ and will be even less under our control. So this may be a short term strategy at best.

Ruminating about the past is triggered by perceived wrongdoing (our own or somebody else’s). These are some examples:

  • Playing the same event in one’s head over and over.
  • Keeping punishing yourself or others, with some vain hope that this will somehow make up for the past.
  • ‘Why (did it happen / did he do…)?’

Ruminating is the result of our refusal to accept a past event. As the past cannot be changed, it becomes a circular trap, like a broken record. Ruminating doesn’t achieve anything but prevents you from being present and recognising current opportunities. In effect, it is just another mistake that does not correct the past ones.

29. The Present

29. The Present

The present which is here and now Such wise one should aspire to win What never can be lost nor shaken.
Buddha (the founder of Buddhism, 6c BCE)

This area focuses on what it really means to be present (being ‘here and now’) and why it matters. Attention and concentration will also be addressed as they are closely related to this subject.


Although we are always physically present, our mind can wander off away from the present and focus on the past, future, other places and situations, or day-dream. This ability has some advantages: we can plan, process or mentally escape from what we find difficult, unpleasant or boring. However, if we make a habit of it, the result is the opposite. The very feelings we are trying to avoid (e.g. boredom) can become more intense and more frequent. But this is not all, staying in the present has other benefits:

  • It increases our awareness and control of the situation and minimises absentmindedness and clumsiness.
  • It reduces stress, anxiety and worrying.
  • We only really live in the present, so being ‘here and now’ enables us to live life fully.

This exercise can help us develop this ability:

Living mindfully can be practised in many situations (e.g. while doing house chores, walking or waiting). It consists of being deliberately fully attentive to what you are experiencing or doing at that moment. Whenever you notice that you are mentally elsewhere gently bring yourself back to the present and allow yourself to be absorbed in the here and now. To get the hang of this sort of mindfulness, start with simple, undemanding activities that we often take for granted, such as walking.

Try the above now. Get up and walk around, paying full attention to your walking, breathing and any other immediate experiences.

28. Pleasure

28. Pleasure

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of travelling.
Margaret Lee Runbeck (American author)

This area refers to the ways we relate to agreeable or enjoyable experiences and sensations. We will first consider the relationship between pleasure and happiness in order to see when and how pleasure can contribute to our happiness.

Pleasure and happiness

Pleasure and happiness can be related but they are not the same. Psychologists have observed that ‘pleasurable events may enhance happiness at the time of their occurrence, but their effects on the level of happiness tend to be transient’.(1) This is because pleasure is either temporary or we become habituated to it: to maintain the same level of pleasure, we need to increase the intensity or introduce something new.

Happiness, on the other hand, can be a lasting state of mind. It is associated with inner harmony (peace of mind), so it depends more on ourselves than on what is available to us. In fact, happiness is a natural state of being (that originates in love of life), but running after pleasures can make us forget this. So pleasure can either contribute to or hinder happiness. The latter occurs if pleasure becomes a need in itself. In such cases it creates dependency, makes the rest of life (inevitably a bigger part) look grey and dull, and makes us nervous and tense since we know at the back of our minds that it is temporary.

To avoid this and have pleasures contribute to your happiness you need to develop two complementary attitudes:

  • Experiencing pleasures fully is less likely to create dependency or attachment because we feel completely satisfied (an incomplete experience, on the other hand, may lead to wanting more and even getting obsessed about something).
  • Being in charge of your pleasures: enjoying pleasures without letting them enslave you.

Let’s see how these two can be put in practice.

27. Interest

27. Interest

Nothing is interesting if you’re not interested.
Helen MacInnes (Scottish-American author)

There is strong empirical support(1) for the claim that interest (sometimes called the need for stimulation, exploratory drive, stimulus hunger – or simply escape from boredom) is one of the fundamental and universal drives among animals and humans. The term interest is used not only because it is more common than the other terms, but also because it has a wider (not limited only to sensations) and more appropriate meaning in relation to people.

Human interest does not depend only on external stimulation. Stimulation can also be internal, or of a different nature (spiritual interest, for example, may even require sensory deprivation). In any case, when this drive is not satisfied we experience a sense of boredom. Boredom is on the other side of the spectrum to interest, and can be an intense negative motivator so looking at it is worthwhile too. The aim of this area is to enable you to increase control over these related phenomena.


Being in charge of boredom is important because bordom can make us do what we really don’t want to and can make us unhappy. So let’s examine first when we get bored.

When do we get bored?

Generally speaking there are two categories of such situations:

  • We are bored because nothing is happening (‘I have nothing to do!’ feeling).
  • We are bored because of what is happening (e.g. we feel that a task, movie, lecture, conversation, or activity is boring).

Before we consider these categories in more detail, it is important to remember that interest and boredom do not depend only on circumstances but also on ourselves: both are, to a large degree, in the ‘eyes of the beholder’.


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom