THURSDAY, Nov. 12 (HealthDay News) -- If you want to be happy,
try to stay focused.
New research shows that when people's minds drifted from the
task or activity at hand, they reported being less happy than when
they were fully engaged in whatever they were doing.
The human mind is uniquely capable of wandering -- that is, to
ponder things that have happened, to anticipate things that will
happen, and to plan for things that might happen, explained study
author Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate in psychology at
Harvard University. The ability is one of the traits that makes
human beings human, he noted.
Yet, cognitive wandering comes at a cost, which is that when
people are thinking about something other than what they're doing,
they feel less happy, the researchers discovered.
"Human beings seem to have this unique capacity to focus on the non-present. They have the ability to reflect on the past, plan for the future and imagine things that might never occur," Killingsworth said. "But at the same time, human beings are clumsy users of this capacity and it tends to decrease, rather than increase, happiness."
In the study, 2,250 participants were prompted at random times
throughout the day using an iPhone Web application. They were asked
how they were feeling, what they were doing, if they were thinking
about something other than what they were doing and whether
whatever they were contemplating was pleasant (say, daydreaming
about a vacation), unpleasant (perhaps worrying about a
relationship or finances) or neutral in nature.
According to the study, participants spent nearly 47 percent of
their waking hours with their mind in a wandering state. "This
study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable
degree, by the non-present," Killingsworth said.
That is, with one notable exception. When describing what they
were doing, participants could choose from 22 activities, including
walking, eating, shopping, watching TV, commuting and working.
The only activity during which people seemed to be quite good at
staying on task mentally was while making love. During sex, only 10
percent of people reported wandering thoughts.
Generally, people also reported being the happiest when making
love, exercising or conversing. They said they were least happy
when resting or sleeping, working or using a home computer.
When it came to what they were thinking about, 42.5 percent
thought of pleasant topics, 26.5 percent thought of unpleasant
topics, while 31 percent were thinking neutral thoughts.
And while people who were thinking of pleasant things were
happier than people thinking of unpleasant things, even those
thinking happy thoughts were less happy than people who were fully
engaged in whatever they were doing.
The study is published in the Nov. 12 issue of
In some ways, the research provides scientific evidence of what
many self-help books and some religious traditions espouse, which
is that being in the "here and now" is critical for happiness,
Participants were from 83 counties, a wide range of occupations
and ranged in age from 18 to 88.
Barbara Becker Holstein, a psychologist and "happiness coach" in
Long Branch, N.J., said the findings speak to the importance of
doing things that provide a sense of purpose and meaning. Such
activities make it easier to stay focused, Holstein explained.
"This research is fabulous and fascinating," Holstein said. "But long before the research, psychologists and many educators recognized that in order to feel a sense of well-being, you need to feel you have purpose and meaning in life. That means you are containing the mind around certain projects and activities, and are forcing the mind not to be all over the place all day long."
If you feel your mind starting to head down a "dark tunnel" of
worry and anxiety, try to snap yourself out of it by bringing your
thoughts back to the present, she said.
"It's such a natural tendency to go over bad news or things that haven't worked out, to dramatize the drama we are already experiencing," she said. "But if we can distract ourselves by getting involved doing something, we get some distance from whatever we were ruminating on and it's better for us."
If you'd like to be part of Harvard's happiness research
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