Almost no adage or piece of wisdom is as pervasive and repetitive in our modern world as the advice to “Live in the now.” With our ever-increasing understanding of the illusory nature of time, we gain more and more insight into the concept that whether we are lingering in the past or harboring anxiety about the future, either way we are living in illusion because the past and future don’t really exist. Aristotle called happiness, “the chief good, the end towards which all other things aim.” Certainly wallowing in past regrets or nostalgia can be a source of sorrow and festering in anxiety about what the future holds can be a source of stress and worry, but is there any direct provable correlation between our tendency to focus outside the present moment and our level of happiness in life? The answer is surprisingly, yes. In a 2010 study conducted by Harvard-trained psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, data collected from over 15,000 participants showed a clear connection between an individual’s tendency to ‘mind-wander’ and their level of happiness. In order to conduct his research, Killingsworth created a program at trackyourhappiness.org which provided an iPhone app usable from the mobile devices of participants. Several times throughout the day, the app would send users prompts to answer questions about their moment-to-moment experiences and activities. The app collected over 650,000 real time reports. The participants represented a diverse range of ages, income levels, educational backgrounds, marital status’, occupations, and involved participants from more than 80 countries. Participants were repeatedly asked to answer how they were currently feeling on a scale from very bad to very good, what they were currently doing, from a list of 22 different activities, and whether they were solely focused on the task at hand or if their mind was wandering elsewhere.
The results and analysis of the data collected resulted in a 2010 Science paper co-authored by Killingsworth and psychology professor Daniel Gilbert called “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” According the study people were less happy across the board if they were mind wandering regardless of whether or not they reported enjoying the task at hand. In other words, even if their current task was an unenjoyable one according to them- such as an activity rated low in enjoyment like commuting to work, participants still reported being happier while focusing in the moment rather than mind wandering to other places. “As it turns out people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not,” said Killingsworth in a presentation for TedxCambridge. The study also documented whether the things being pondered while mind-wandering were negative, neutral, or positive, and found that even when participants reported mind-wandering to pleasant ideas, they were still less happy than remaining present in the moment.
“Mind-wander very likely seems to be an actual cause, not merely a consequence, of unhappiness,” said Killilngsworth, noting that the study revealed a connection between mind-wandering now and being unhappy later. According to Killingsworth’s happiness study it was revealed that in general, people’s minds are wandering 47% of the time. That means that nearly half of the time, the average person is likely to be thinking about something other than what they’re doing. The study revealed that this was true to varying degrees depending on the activity in question, with having sex being the lowest incidence of mind-wander at only 10% as compared to close to 100% for self-care and grooming tasks.
What can we take away from the empirical data uncovered in this study? It would seem that the human mind is intentionally designed to function optimally on the now. It is in our genetic code surf through the illusion of space-time with ease rather than to get caught in burdensome notions of things, for all intents and purposes, not actually real. After all, the past isn’t real anymore and the future isn’t real yet. Once the ‘future’ happens, it’s already the present. Therefore, we are always in the present. This means that the present is the place of life. And in this place of life, as corroborated by scientific proof, we can connect to our fullest state of happiness.
Image Source: Spiritual Awakening