Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Robert Graham
I heard a podcast last week that stopped me in my tracks. It was called “Simply Happy” from the TED Radio Hour. In it, six experts dealt with that most important of questions: What makes us happy?
They proposed several powerful ideas, including:
- Slow down
- Have less stuff
- Create positive meaning from things
- Be grateful
But the one that has stuck with me is the simplest one of all: Be in the moment.
Matthew Killingsworth has a PhD from Harvard in Psychology. He studies the nature and causes of human happiness, and is the creator of www.trackyourhappiness.org. This is a scientific research project that uses smartphones to study happiness in real time during everyday life and investigates what makes life worth living.
What he found was that 47% of the time, people are thinking of something other than what they’re doing. And when our minds wander, we are less happy.
Here is how often our minds stray during different activities:
65% of the time when showering or brushing teeth
50% when working
40% when exercising
10% when having sex (he didn’t specify what exactly people were thinking about during sex, but it wasn’t what they were doing at that moment)
This research led Killingsworth to declare, “People are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not.”
Apparently, even when our minds are straying from something unpleasant, it still makes us less happy. Personally, I can’t imagine how thinking about the beach during a root canal would make us more miserable, but he’s the expert.
“Mind wandering appears to be an actual cause and not merely a consequence of unhappiness.” This is due to the fact that when our minds wander, we often think of unpleasant things such as worries or regrets.
If it’s as simple as being present, why isn’t everyone walking around smiling? Because the nature of the human mind is to wander. When you have a steak on your plate, a dog will watch you without blinking for an hour, salivating and waiting for a gift or a slip of the fork. But human minds seem stuck in the past and future.
When I was in my late 20s, I did a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Southern Thailand (hardest thing I’ve ever done). One day, a monk started his talk (they were allowed to talk) by saying, “The future does not exist. The past didn’t happen the way you remember it. So why, then, do you spend most of your time in the past and present?”
Faced with all this data, what are we to do? Personally, ever since I heard that podcast, I have tried to be more present. When I catch my mind wandering, I let go of the thought and return to what’s happening. I have also been meditating more often, trying to train my meandering mind to stay put.
With our phones and watches buzzing non-stop, it’s harder than ever to be present. And it’s never been more important. So next time you find your mind drifting, whether you’re washing dishes or playing with your kids, get back to NOW. It’s the happiest moment we have 🙂
P.S. If you’re not one of the millions people who have seen Pharrell’s “Happy” video, check it out here. You can’t help but smile when you watch this!
photo credit: adam wight