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Science Says You’ll Be Much Happier If Your Mind Wanders Less

Science Says You’ll Be Much Happier If Your Mind Wanders Less

Our minds are a wandering machine. A study found that almost half of our thoughts are not related to what we are doing. If that isn’t a telling statistic, then I don’t know what it is. This raises questions: “How does this brain activity affect our happiness?” and “Does it make us happier (or not)?”

Much of the research on the factors that contribute to happiness has focused on factors like income, gender, education, and marriage, but as Harvard Psychologist Matt Killingsworth mentioned in Greater Good, “Factors like these don’t seem to have particularly strong effects.”

It seems, according to Killingsworth, that fleeting aspects of our everyday lives—such as what we’re doing, who we’re with, and what we’re thinking about—have a big influence on our happiness. And yet these are the very factors that have been most difficult for scientists to study. This drove Killingsworth and Daniel T.Gilbert to test the influence that such factors have on happiness.

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The Research

The Harvard study titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, made use of an unconventional technique known as experience sampling – where people were interrupted at various intervals during the day. This technique is extremely powerful. It allows you to find large patterns in human thought and behavior, develop a portrait of someone and find distinct correlations between thoughts, actions, and happiness.

The psychologists developed an iPhone app to sample ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions. At intervals throughout the day, people were sent a brief questionnaire asking them about their experience at that moment just before the signal.

They were asked how they felt (on a scale of very bad to very good), what they were doing (22 activities including watching tv and eating were provided) and whether they were thinking about something else. They could answer yes or no to this last question. If they were thinking about something else, they were asked whether the feelings were neutral, unpleasant or pleasant.

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A diverse group – ages 18-80, representing a wide range of incomes, education levels and marital statuses and nationalities – of 15000 people formed part of the sample. This allowed the researchers to gather over 650 000 real-time reports.

Our Mind Wanders Toward Unhappiness

The study found that 47% of the time people were thinking about something other than their current activity. This varied across the 22 activities – from 65% when taking a shower, 50% when working, 40% when exercising, all the way to 10% while having sex. Aside from sex, people’s minds were wondering at least 30% of the time. Our minds then wander a considerable amount of the time, even when we are resting and following instructions to think about nothing in particular.

According to psychology, if your mind wanders often, there is an 85% chance that you are subconsciously unhappy with your life. This study supports this notion. It was found that people were significantly less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and the size of the effect is considerable. In the words of Killingsworth:

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“…how often a person’s mind wanders, and what they think about when it does, is far more predictive of happiness than how much money they make, for example.”

This holds true for all 22 activities and regardless as to what the person is doing, even if what they are doing is not enjoyable, for example, commuting to work. This can be explained by the fact that when our minds wander, we often think about negative and unpleasant things – our worries, our anxieties, and even our regrets. These, in turn, have a big impact on our happiness.

How Mental Presence Affects Happiness

The data from the Harvard Group study also points to the fact that your happiness is not determined by the way we spend our day. Rather it has to do with engaging in the present.

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Mental presence then, where we match our thoughts to our specific actions, is a massive predictor of our happiness and should be cultivated for a happier life. However, as Killingsworth said, “The lesson here isn’t that we should stop mind-wandering entirely—after all, our capacity to revisit the past and imagine the future is immensely useful, and some degree of mind-wandering is probably unavoidable.”

What is suggested is that we cultivate ways to reduce mind wandering (e.g. meditation practice) as this ultimately will improve the quality of your life, help us more effectively cope with bad moments, achieve greater enjoyment from the good ones and become happier.

Featured photo credit: Martina K via magdeleine.co

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Nick Darlington

Nick is a Multipotentialite, an entrepreneur, a blogger and a traveler.

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Last Updated on September 18, 2020

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
  5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your thoughts/emotions

Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
  4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

5. Acknowledge your thoughts

Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

As Helen Keller once said,

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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