You’re strolling along the Bob Jones Trail. But your mind is light-years away. And it’s a good chance that what you’re telling yourself is making you unhappy.
Researchers at Harvard University studied how much mind-wandering influences happiness. Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert used an iPhone Web app to study the thoughts, feelings and behavior of 2,250 subjects who ranged in age from 18 to 88 and who hailed from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations.
They contacted the volunteers at random intervals during the day and asked what they were doing and whether they were thinking about their current activity or something else. If people reported that their minds had wandered, they were asked to rate their thoughts as pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
The results? Subjects spent a third of their time thinking about something other than what they were doing. Their minds wandered 30 percent of the time during every activity — except during sex.
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All this daydreaming comes at an emotional cost. It seems as soon as we leave the here-and-now, we gravitate toward emotional drama: “Why did my co-worker say that to me?” “I wonder if my son is safe in Afghanistan.” “My mother-in-law has never liked me.” “Will I be able to put the kids through college?”
This behavior is uniquely human. No other species regrets past mistakes, worries about the future or frets about events that will probably never happen. In fact, mental mayhem appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.
According to Killingsworth, “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
He went on to estimate that only 4.6 percent of our happiness at any given moment is a direct result of what we’re doing. Rather, mind-wandering appears to be the cause, not the result, of our discontent.
Philosophers and religious leaders have known this for millennia. Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, is quoted as saying, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Everyone chases after happiness, not noticing that happiness is right at their heels.”
Today, as we celebrate the season renowned for both its joy and its mental chaos, we should stop, take a few breaths and bring our attention to the glorious now. Forget for the moment who is coming for dinner or when the kids will be picked up by your ex. Tune out images of last-minute shopping or disappointment about what others have done. Instead, give yourself the perfect gift. Give yourself the present.
Tips for arresting a wandering mind
Want to live in the here and now? Start with these suggestions:
Limit multitasking. Doing many things at once requires you to be emotionally scattered. Sometimes you have to do it for your job. When you’re out of the office, focus on one task at a time. You’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll actually get more done.
Create electronics-free time zones. Smart phones, e-mail and texting have become part of our lives. But they run roughshod over our inner tranquility. Use them when you must. Then turn them off and enjoy a time without buzzing or blinking.
Break tasks into small, manageable segments. We tend to zone out when chores feel overwhelming. Set a reachable goal you can comfortably achieve. When it’s finished move on to something else. Take in your surroundings. Sniff the air. Notice colors and sounds. Feel the fur on your tabby’s back. There’s plenty going on around you. You simply have to look.
Let go of judgments. Critical thoughts interfere with your well-being and distract you from being present. Recognize them when they crop up. Breathe deeply and allow them to slip away.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com