I was listening to a happiness episode on one of my favorite podcasts, the TED Radio Hour.
One of the speakers, Matt Killingsworth, talked about a study done to track happiness in real time. An app was given to 35,000 people who received survey questions on their smartphones, on a regular basis, asking what they were doing at that moment, how they were feeling at that moment, and whether they had been thinking about something other than what they were doing.
On average, people were found to be thinking of something else over 30% of the time. The numbers were higher in some situations:
- 65% when showering and brushing their teeth
- 50% at work
- 40% while exercising
The results showed people were substantially less happy when their minds were wandering because they were often thinking about unpleasant things: anxieties, worries, and regrets. Stated another way, the results showed people are universally happier when fully engaged in the activity they are participating in; when they are living in the moment.
These results didn’t surprise me. On a personal level, I know my mind wanders when I’m showering, brushing my teeth, and doing other mindless activities. I also find treadmills and stationary bikes boring and like to read or watch TV to make those exercises more enjoyable.
I also regularly write and speak about how negativity tends to comes naturally. For example, when someone asks, “What keeps you up at night?,” the answer is rarely, “All this great stuff in my life is making me so excited I can’t sleep.” For most of us, those middle-of-the-night sessions with ourselves are about problems we want to solve, or other things bothering us.
I also read a remarkable op-ed piece in the New York Times about a University of Virginia experiment where people, in order to avoid the thoughts in their heads, would go so far as to choose to self-administer electric shocks when left alone to think.
The takeaway from all of this is to notice where your attention is; and when you feel it straying, bring yourself back to the present moment. That’s easier said than done. It takes practice. But based on the real-time data collected in Killingsworth’s study, learning to be more present is a habit worth cultivating.
If you want to read more about being present, I strongly recommend two of my favorite books, both by the late Richard Carlson: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Slowing Down to the Speed of Life. Practicing meditation is also frequently recommended to learn to be more present.
Have you learned to be present in your daily activities? Please join the conversation with your comments…