Science News

Happiness is Here and Now

Sun, 14th Nov 2010

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When are you at your happiest?  Research published this week shows that we are most happy when we’re concentrating on the job at hand, rather than allowing our minds to wander.  But, oddly, people seem to spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.

A screenshot from www.trackyourhappiness.orgMatthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, from Harvard University, developed a free application for smartphone users that contacted it’s users at random intervals to ascertain their happiness, what they were doing and, importantly, what they were thinking about.  They asked if they were thinking about what they were currently doing or, if not, was it something pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

It’s thought that our ability to contemplate events in the past, as well as possible future events, is a vital part of the human condition.  It helps us to learn, reason and make plans, but this study, published in the journal Science this week, set out to see how it affects our happiness.

Reports of mind-wandering, or “stimulus independent thought” were strikingly common in their results.  For 21 of the 22 different categories of activity, people reported that their minds were wandering no less than 30% of the time.  The only activity where people didn’t report this much mind wandering was when making love.  Contrary to what you might expect, the activity in hand didn’t actually affect how pleasant the daydreaming was.

But how does this relate to happiness?  By performing a multilevel regression analysis, which is a statistical analysis that can show causal relationships in sets of data, the researchers were able to show that people were less happy when allowing their minds to wander.  In fact, even thinking pleasant thoughts was no more likely to make you happy than staying “in the moment”.

So it seems that there may be some truth in the philosophical and religious teachings that tell us happiness is attained by “concentrating on the moment” but, still, a wandering mind is a useful one. The authors argue that “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost”.

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