Thursday, November 15, 2012

Don't Wander. Be Happy.

In an attempt to escape election season propaganda overload last week, I found myself wandering around one of my favorite sites in search or relief and inspiration.   What I came across was the video below.   Matt Killingsworth's 'Stay in the Moment'

It's well worth the 10 minutes it takes to watch, but in case you're at your desk at work and without headphones, I can summarize it for you.   They are conducting a study to gather 'happy data'.   You can read all about it at their website  Over 15,000 test subjects from all walks of life (gender, income, marital status, age, etc.) installed apps on their phones that allow Matt and his team to send them random messages throughout the day.   When a subject gets a message, he or she simply responds to a short list of questions - what are you doing right now?   are you enjoying it?  are you thinking about something else?   After collecting over 650,000 sets of data, they've started to study it for meaning.

What they're discovering is very interesting.    People were happy around 66% of the time when they were focused on the task at hand.    When their mind was wandering, they were happy only 57% of the time.  The data also shows that people are less happy when their mind wanders even while they're doing something they don't enjoy, like commuting.

The data further suggest that while there is a strong correlation between mind wandering now and being less happy later, there is no correlation between being unhappy now and mind wandering.   In other words, people aren't just daydreaming to distract themselves from an unpleasant present.  In fact, more often they let their minds wander off to think about unpleasant things like worries, anxieties, and regrets rather than happy things like their last vaction or a giant hot fudge sundae.  

If you're skeptical, pay attention to what you're thinking about when you're not entirely focused on making that sandwich or writing a TPR report or taking a shower.   Are they happy thoughts or something else?

It may sound like one of those crazy studies you read about all the time that brags to prove what would seem obvious - like exercise is good for your health, and drinking a lot of soda is not.

So what can we learn from the results of this study that we haven't been told a hundred times by Ram Dass ('Be Here Now'), Thich Nhat Hanh ('Life is available only in the present moment'), or Dalai Lama ('Focus on the present moment, and that moment alone.')?     Every moment holds a choice for us - to be in it or to be somewhere else.   This study seems to show when you're daydreaming, you are more often going to a place that's less enjoyable than the one you're in at that moment.   One obvious solution would be to try to pay attention to your thoughts and when a worry, anxiety, or regret come up, simply try to think of something more upbeat.

The other solution is to try to stay in the now.   Neither the past nor the future actually exist.   They are merely figments in our imagination.   Images of what has already happened to us, chock-full of self-critique and second-guessing, and stressful visions of future outcomes that may not even happen.   Neither is taking place right now.  The only thing that's real, the only thing happening to us at all, is what's happening in this instant.   Even the beginning of this paragraph is already a piece of your past.

Eckhart Tolle, the guy that looks like Benjamin Linus on Lost, in his book The Power of Now, describes it this way - "This moment is your life. – Your life is not between the moments of your birth and death.  Your life is between now and your next breath.  The present – the here and now – is all the life you ever get.  So live each moment in full, in kindness and peace, without fear and regret.  And do the best you can with what you have in this moment; because that is all you can ever expect of anyone, including yourself."

This moment is the only one that's real.

this one.

now this one.

Stay in it.   That's where the action is.   Or so say the scientists and mystics and Zen'ny ice cream makers.

Thanks for staying with me on that one.  I'll try to keep it lighter next time, must be a Daylight Savings thing.