People are happier when living in the present moment. At least that’s what former Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth believes. As a long-term meditator and expert on human behavior, I have to agree. Granted, the “present” may not always be pleasant, but his data shows that even if the activity you’re participating in is not so fun (e.g., sitting in traffic), people tend to be happier when focused on the here and now, in contrast to times when their mind wanders somewhere else.
As Mr. Killingsworth noted in his 2011 TED talk, “Mind-wandering is likely a cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.” His research aggregated data from 15,000 people, across 80 countries, of various ages and income levels. His study suggests that mind wandering has a more significant effect on happiness than other factors like income, education, gender and marital status. One particularly interesting data point found that on average, peoples’ minds wander 47% of the time! Wow! That means for the average person, we’re “somewhere else,” or spacing out (at least a little bit) for about half of our waking hours.
Like most research studies, there are some limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn. Killingsworth, who is now a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Scholar, compiled his data from an iPhone app he created during his doctoral work called Track Your Happiness.org. There may be less reliability in this type of data that’s gathered remotely, in comparison to a study with more formal, in-person controls. At the same time, harnessing smart phone technology allowed for a really large sample size, which makes the data more compelling.
Either way, the findings remain inspiring and support something that we all know on an intuitive level – that joy comes from, well, enjoying the moment. It’s easier to tap into this happiness when doing something immediately engaging or captivating (think spending time with your new love, attending an amazing concert or bungee cord jumping for those thrill seekers out there). But, it’s trickier when we’re faced with the more (seemingly) mundane that’s part of our day-to-day existence.
So, how can we cultivate greater presence not only during the wild, adrenalin filled highs, but also during the more lackluster lulls? The answer: practice being mindful. (And, I want to emphasize the word practice here because any powerful skill requires it.)
There’s a reason activities like mindfulness meditation and yoga (of which mindfulness is a core tenet) have exploded in popularity over the last decade or so. It’s because their underlying message of slowing down and connecting with the moment speaks to the pain and disconnection associated with our fast paced, information laden lifestyles.
“Mindfulness,” in this context, means paying attention to the present moment, with a sense of acceptance, non-judgment and compassion for whatever you’re experiencing. It can be practiced formally, by meditating, or informally, by choosing to pay close attention to whatever you’re doing — whether it’s captivating or not.
Fortunately, the more “informal” mindfulness practices are just as valid as sitting on the meditation cushion. Dipa Ma, an esteemed Bangladeshi meditation teacher who influenced the development of mindfulness practice in the West, was an inspiring champion of what you might call “active mindfulness” – applying the basic tenets of the philosophy to everyday, common activities. This discovery was born out of practicality, as her first students were busy mothers who had no time to go to the temple and sit. Accordingly, she taught them to carefully attend to their activities of daily life, whether feeding her child or doing the laundry. As one of her former students, Michelle Levey, noted, “She believed you could become enlightened ironing your clothes…she felt that every activity should be given that much mindfulness. And, the care should be there, too – care for whoever you were ironing the clothes for.” (Source: Knee Deep in Grace).
Everybody knows how sweet it is to savor life’s simplest moments when we pause to take it all in: watching the sunset; taking a walk with a friend; or having a hot cup of tea on a winter’s day. Far too often, however, we’re pulled away from the present to fixate on the past, or worry about the future. When this happens, we’re not able to fully experience the richness, and subsequent happiness, that is often right under our noses.
Of course, there are times when stepping out of the present moment is useful and adaptive. We need to do this at least some of the time to plan our lives and problem-solve. A lot can be learned from reflection and fantasy that take us out of the present, often resulting in a feeling of greater ease and freshness for the task at hand. And, during times of overwhelming trauma and stress, it’s part of the survival instinct to “go somewhere else.” Having said all this, one can see how the line between “presence” and “lack of presence” can get fuzzy, leaving the designation in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the case for cultivating presence in the form of greater engagement with life is compelling. Whether washing the dishes, working on your computer, building a cabinet, or talking with a friend, the simple, but powerful directive is to just be there. And, mindfulness practice is one excellent way to increase our ability to be there more.
I’ll finish by saying that mindfulness practice is not a panacea for happiness, but it is one tool that’s both inexpensive and readily available. So, it appears to be true that you can buy (some) happiness; the good news is that it’s a lot cheaper than you think.
Watch Matt Killingworth’s TED talk, entitled Our Happiest Moments:
More Resources on Mindfulness Meditation:
Free Guided Meditation: HealthyPsych has compiled a list of several digital resources, including apps, to learn about and practice mindfulness.
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society: the entity led by Jon Kabat-Zinn that founded Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – an effective clinical program widely practiced and studied.
Spirit Rock: one of the bigger mindfulness meditation retreat centers in the US, offering in-person and online classes and retreats in Northern California.
https://www.spiritrock.org/community: a list of “sister” programs primarily on the West Coast of the US, but also including other parts of the country.
Mindsight Institute: those curious about the scientific study of mindfulness will find the work of Dan Siegel, MD (Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA school of Medicine), particularly useful.
About this Contributor: Kim Pratt, LCSW, is a passionate advocate of personal growth and healing. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 10 years, and in private practice as a therapist to adults of all ages since 2007. Prior to her clinical career, she worked in the information technology sector in the SF Bay Area. She is a proud spouse of 14+ years; co-parent to two beautiful non-human beings; a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation; and an aging jock. Her formal education was received at UC Berkeley (Masters in Social Work) and the University of Michigan (B.A. in Anthropology), where she also played varsity tennis (Go Blue!).