Positive Psychology research – Being present

Living in the present

The teachings of Buddhism, Vedic philosophy, Taoists, Polynesian Ka Huna, Confucianism and many other ancient traditions teach that happiness comes by living and experiencing the present moment as it arises. Humans may be almost unique among animals in that they have the mental ability to plan, plot and dream about the future. We also have the ability to fondly remember the past, replay events and imagine different outcomes as well as beat ourselves up for lost opportunities, lost loves and lost dreams.

The ancient teachings inform us that time and energy spent in such states of conjecture lead us away from happiness potentially trapping us in a state of false imagining. All these other states are merely our interpretation of how our experience once was or how it may be one day. Last week Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published research indicating that not living in the present was indeed detrimental to wellbeing.

They used a special “track your happiness” iPhone app which gathered 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives. They found that we spend at least half our time thinking about something other than our immediate surroundings and most of this daydreaming doesn’t make us happy.

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that on average, people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

If you’re in an organization that wants to find ways to increase peoples focus and attention read about our Business Psychology workshops For more information on the research from Harvard read on:

The Harvard study

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them. Contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.

To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love.

“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth, “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the nonpresent.” Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.

Complex time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness. The implications of this study are profound. I can immediately think of two; how the study findings relate to career choice and the impact of social networking.

Choosing a career

Although it’s only a small study, the Harvard research  may have profound implications for the type of careers we should recommend our children to pursue. If spending time away from the present leads to unhappiness and we want to be happy and healthy what type of job keeps us in the present?

For example there are certain careers, such as being an auditor, where you spend your career thinking and examining the past and giving opinions about whether financial statements were once true. There are other careers, such as project management, where you spend your time thinking, analysing and planning for a future.

Our last newsletter highlighted the recent study from Warwick University which once again provided an evidence base for the assertion that happy employees are productive, engaged and creative people. If this is true then perhaps HR departments need to start thinking about how to get their staff to live in the here and now; encouraging face to face communication, taking breaks and doing exercises to focus their attention. To learn about our attention and focus workshops go to [ ]

Computer usage and social media

The research indicated that we tend to be unhappy using a personal computer. What is not clear however is the types of usage of the computer. For example, are we unhappy spending time observing other people’s lives as presented on Facebook? Is the observation of other people’s pictures, pokes, movies and formation of groups a vicarious observation of other peoples experience?

The study found we are at our happiest communicating face to face with other humans, experiencing nature first hand, having sex (rather than looking at someone else having sex on a screen) and exercising. I recently heard about a fashion amongst teenage girls at a Cheshire school to be obsessed with posting picture albums of themselves entitled “Me”. These are close up pictures often taken in the bathroom from various angles – Is this strange? Facebook often seems to be a place where people showcase their lives and show off their achievements. Whilst it enables loved ones to keep in touch from all over the world it may also has the effect of making people feel like their lives are lived in the glare of publicity cast by the yellow glow of a screen. When I meet friends I like to be surprised and delighted by them telling me about their experiences. I like to watch faces light up as they tell me about what they have been doing. I don’t feel this flow of positive experience as much when it comes through a screen. Maybe other people really do. There is a description of people like me as People 1.0 and people like Mark Zuckerberg as People 2.0.

Do you think human beings have changed so much in the last few years?

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