be present to be happy

‘People have been debating the causes of happiness for a really long time, in fact for thousands of years, but it seems like many of those debates remain unresolved. Well, as with many other domains in life, I think the scientific method has the potential to answer this question. In fact, in the last few years, there’s been an explosion in research on happiness. For example, we’ve learned a lot about its demographics, how things like income and education, gender and marriage relate to it. But one of the puzzles this has revealed is that factors like these don’t seem to have a particularly strong effect. Yes, it’s better to make more money rather than less, or to graduate from college instead of dropping out, but the differences in happiness tend to be small.

‘Which leaves the question, what are the big causes of happiness? I think that’s a question we haven’t really answered yet, but I think something that has the potential to be an answer is that maybe happiness has an awful lot to do with the contents of our moment-to-moment experiences.

This graph shows happiness on the vertical axis, and you can see that bar there representing how happy people are when they’re focused on the present, when they’re not mind-wandering. As it turns out, people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not. Now you might look at this result and say, okay, sure,on average people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, but surely when their minds are straying away from something that wasn’t very enjoyable to begin with, at least then mind-wandering should be doing something good for us. Nope. As it turns out, people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing. For example, people don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities, and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else. It’s amazing.’

‘So how could this be happening? I think part of the reason, a big part of the reason, is that when our minds wander, we often think about unpleasant things, and they are enormously less happy when they do that, our worries, our anxieties, our regrets, and yet even when people are thinking about something neutral, they’re still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering at all. Even when they’re thinking about something they would describe as pleasant, they’re actually just slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering.’

‘We’re lucky in this data we have many responses from each person, and so we can look and see, does mind-wandering tend to precede unhappiness, or does unhappiness tend to precede mind-wandering, to get some insight into the causal direction. As it turns out, there is a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later, consistent with the idea that mind-wandering is causing people to be unhappy. In contrast, there’s no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later. In other words, mind-wandering very likely seems to be an actual cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness. ‘

Excerpted from Matt Killingsworth’s TED Talk, ‘Want to be happier? Stay in the moment.’

Emphasis my own

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