Struggling to be Happy in the Present Moment


By Sören Potthoff

My namesake, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, once said in his seminal book Either/Or: “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.”

This quote resonates with me not because I am panicking over whether or not I should get married; I am 16 years old. Rather, I strongly relate to Kierkegaard’s theme that the sadness that plagues us in the grim reality of our day-to-day lives is not caused by the situation we have put ourselves in. Nor is it created by a choice we have made or a thing we are not doing. Rather, it is due to an underlying inability to be happy in the present moment.

During the pandemic, I think a lot of teenagers have experienced this phenomenon, myself included. With the Omicron variant wreaking havoc on our communities, both nationally and locally, the question of online school is once again under discussion. When the possibility of trading our desks and face-to-face relationships with teachers for a seat on a couch, a Zoom meeting and asynchronous work was raised, opinions differed among my group of friends.

Some friends were thrilled at the prospect of returning to the cyber land of Zoom school, while one friend said that going back to online school would “literally kill me.”

I found myself in the middle. On one level, in-person school has been somewhat enjoyable for me. Seeing my friends every day and receiving an education that is infinitely more edifying has undoubtedly been a very good thing. But as I began to reflect on the possibility of a return to online school, a weird thing happened to me: I realized that, when viewed from the present moment, the months of March 2020-June 2021 all of a sudden seemed like a lovely time.

I began to experience a wave of nostalgia for waking up at 9:57 a.m., rolling over, joining my first-period history class in a hoodie and sweatpants, making myself a tea, and essentially sleepwalking through the entire school day. To some, this may sound like pure sarcasm. I assure you it is not. Even right now, as I write this, I am still feeling this wave of nostalgia.

The quality of my online education was sub-optimal, the only in-person social life I had was infrequent and distanced and masked, but there is something ineffable that makes it all seem so appealing in retrospect. Maybe it is because I am unhappy and stressed out by school right now. It may be foolish to think that this unhappiness and anxiety would be cured by Zoom school, but I cannot stop imagining how nice life would be if we were online at the moment.

This experience lies at the heart of the dilemma Kierkegaard is describing. When we are unhappy, we tend to glorify the past. We immediately begin to think back to the lovely, fun times we had. I think back to the minimal homework and the countless late nights I spent with my friends playing video games, laughing and joking our way through the most uncertain and foreign period of our lives.

These fond memories, in hindsight, seem to compose the entirety of my quarantined experience. As time has passed and the downsides of a more normal learning style have presented themselves, the negatives of school during quarantine figure less prominently in my memory. However, there were plenty of negatives.

The day-to-day monotony, the feeling that every single thing in my existence was a repeat of the previous day, week and month, like in the movie Groundhog Day, was suffocating. The amount of time I spent attempting to fill the emptiness of my days by scrolling on Tiktok was nauseating.

I have to consciously force myself to remember these things. This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s dilemma. The opposite of one’s current situation always seems more favorable when one does not allow oneself to be fully in the present. I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that in a few months, when I am writing college applications, I will be longing for January 2022.

That is the nature of our mental life, and I doubt I or anyone else facing a similar struggle will be able to find consistent happiness until we are able to appreciate and live in the present moment. The imagined future, the recollected past, or some hypothetical scenario will always seem better than the present, but in reality, they do not exist.

Sören Potthoff ( lives in Chapel Hill. He is a junior at Carolina Friends School.

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