If you want to be happy, try to stay focused. New research shows that when people's minds drifted from the task or activity at hand, they reported being less happy than when they were fully engaged in whatever they were doing.
The human mind is uniquely capable of wandering - that is, to ponder things that have happened, to anticipate things that will happen, and to plan for things that might happen, explained study author Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University. The ability is one of the traits that makes human beings human, he noted.
Yet, cognitive wandering comes at a cost, which is that when people are thinking about something other than what they're doing, they feel less happy, the researchers discovered.
"Human beings seem to have this unique capacity to focus on the non-present. They have the ability to reflect on the past, plan for the future and imagine things that might never occur," Killingsworth said. "But at the same time, human beings are clumsy users of this capacity and it tends to decrease, rather than increase, happiness."
Technology a distration
In the study, 2,250 participants were prompted at random times throughout the day using an iPhone Web application. They were asked how they were feeling, what they were doing, if they were thinking about something other than what they were doing and whether whatever they were contemplating was pleasant (say, daydreaming about a vacation), unpleasant (perhaps worrying about a relationship or finances) or neutral in nature.
According to the study, participants spent nearly 47% of their waking hours with their mind in a wandering state. "This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present," Killingsworth said.
That is, with one notable exception. When describing what they were doing, participants could choose from 22 activities, including walking, eating, shopping, watching TV, commuting and working.
Focus on sex
The only activity during which people seemed to be quite good at staying on task mentally was while making love. During sex, only 10% of people reported wandering thoughts.
Generally, people also reported being the happiest when making love, exercising or conversing. They said they were least happy when resting or sleeping, working or using a home computer.
When it came to what they were thinking about, 42.5% thought of pleasant topics, 26.5% thought of unpleasant topics, while 31% were thinking neutral thoughts.
And while people who were thinking of pleasant things were happier than people thinking of unpleasant things, even those thinking happy thoughts were less happy than people who were fully engaged in whatever they were doing.
The study is published in the journal Science.
Doing things with meaning
In some ways, the research provides scientific evidence of what many self-help books and some religious traditions espouse, which is that being in the "here and now" is critical for happiness, Killingsworth said.
Participants were from 83 counties, a wide range of occupations and ranged in age from 18 to 88.
Barbara Becker Holstein, a psychologist and "happiness coach" in Long Branch, NJ, said the findings speak to the importance of doing things that provide a sense of purpose and meaning. Such activities make it easier to stay focused, Holstein explained.
"This research is fabulous and fascinating," Holstein said. "But long before the research, psychologists and many educators recognized that in order to feel a sense of well-being, you need to feel you have purpose and meaning in life. That means you are containing the mind around certain projects and activities, and are forcing the mind not to be all over the place all day long."
If you feel your mind starting to head down a "dark tunnel" of worry and anxiety, try to snap yourself out of it by bringing your thoughts back to the present, she said.
"It's such a natural tendency to go over bad news or things that haven't worked out, to dramatize the drama we are already experiencing," she said. "But if we can distract ourselves by getting involved doing something, we get some distance from whatever we were ruminating on and it's better for us."
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