Excerpts from Happiness Is a Focused Mind, By Jenifer Goodwin,
EXECUTIVE HEALTH November 11, 2010
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.
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.
"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."
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, unpleasant or neutral in nature.
According to the study, participants spent nearly 47 percent 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.
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,
Participants were from 83 counties, a wide range of occupations and ranged in age from 18 to 88.
Barbara Becker Holstein, a psychologist, 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. …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 (when) 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."