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Is Mindfulness a trap?

 

UntitledIn recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean?  A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.

Defining Mindfulness

A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something

Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.

Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on?  This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.

 Mindfulness in organisations

download (1)Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program.  The MBSR program focuses on teaching:

  • How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
  • Relaxation tools
  • How to observe the world through the five senses and
  • How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.

All of these are invaluable tools.  Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.

Mindfulness taught in a vacuum

My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction.  Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.

Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff.  These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.

My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground.  When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.

The Buddhist and Yoga approaches

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In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop.  Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:

  • Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
  • Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
  • Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
  • Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment

Mindfulness is complex

Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:

  • Our thoughts & feelings;
  • Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
  • Our breath;
  • Our posture

And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.

Is it merely about being in the moment?

download (7)If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to.  Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something. 

For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought  (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):

  • Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
  • Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
  • Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
  • Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
  • Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong

The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.

Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing  an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.

Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.

Sequential mindful observation

The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn.  In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts

Yoga  an example of structured mindful development

UntitledPatanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention.  Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.

I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area

Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.

Challenges and negative stimulation

This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences.  However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things.  By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others.  Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.

Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology.  In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.

Allowing the good times to flow

In the same way that students train their minds to  allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us.  We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc.  That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake 

Conclusions

I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.

Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.

My experiences

For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com

Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :

  • Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
  • Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
  • Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
  • Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
  • Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
  • Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
  • Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective

I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.

In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.

 

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“Switch it off” and Connect

download (8)We all know how irritating and intrusive smart phones can be and how often we lecture our kids about engaging positively in conversations.  Many of us recall how we used to sit around the dinner table and talk about the day with friends and family. As our relationship with technology develops, our level and quality of attention seems to be diminishing. Many of us find it hard to focus on a report at work, read a book or be mindful of the feelings of our nearest and dearest.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggest having a constant low level of partial attention has an adverse affect on our wellbeing levels.  It’s apparent to most people that constantly checking Facebook statuses takes us away from having real life experiences and forces us to compare our lives with those of our friends.  The vast majority of posts on Facebook report the positive experiences people enjoy, often containing an element of bragging. When people constantly compare statuses it forces them to compare own lives with those of their friends. Surrounded by this self-reported positivity some people conclude their own lives are less adequate than their peers.

Apart from social media, another great stressor is the constant flow of work emails.  These constant notifications take our attention from living a healthy balanced home life and make us focus around the clock on work problems.

Switch it off and connect

photo (1)In order to encourage people to spend a little more time living in the present we thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to disconnect from TV, smartphones, tablets and laptops for 30 minutes a day for 28 days.

These are the simple ground rules for the switch off:

  •  not during work time except during a lunch break
  •  not whilst driving to and from work

You can do anything else you like – play with your children, read a novel, meditate, eat with friends, practice yoga, take a walk, eat dinner…  anything really, so long as it’s done with your full attention.

Breathe Australia and Breathe London are looking for organisations in Australia and the UK to encourage their employees to sign up.  Initially we are inviting those in Queensland and Central London to take part but hope to expand the scheme throughout Australia and the UK

We propose to go into each company and give a quick talk on what happens to your brain when you have continuous partial attention.  We briefly explore how having our attention switched on to so many different sources rewires the brain and makes it difficult to focus on the things that bring us meaning and happiness.  We then teach simple techniques to help focus attention.

We also give those who sign up a reflective journal to note down what they do with their thirty minutes and record how it makes them feel.

At the start of the 28 days we ask participants to rate how satisfied they are with their lives and make a note in their journal. At the end of 28 days we get them to rate their satisfaction again and record how they felt about the process. We also ask them to obtain feedback from their partners or a close friend on what they observed during the process.

Why spend more time in the present?

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Research suggests that people who spend more time living in the present and less time worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past, are happier than those who let their attention drift from the here and now.

In fact the happiest people seem to be able to shift their attention seamlessly between living in the present, reminiscing positively about the past and having constructive and optimistic thoughts about the future.  This can be described as a Balanced Time Perspective (Boniwell and Zimbardo 2004) Read more about the research on time

Our 28 day course encourages people to stay present and connect in a meaningful way to the people and things they love.  Spending too much time online makes us focus on other peoples’ experiences (Facebook) or other people’s problems (work emails).

The research suggests that training our minds to be more present more often increases the level of positive emotions we experience and has a long term positive impact on how satisfied we are with our lives (Fredrickson 2008)  Read more about Fredrickson’s study

Why ask people about life satisfaction?

download (9)Asking people how satisfied they are with their lives is one of the most commonly used tools to assess wellbeing and has been used in many worldwide studies on wellbeing, creativity and productivity at work

We are beginning to make a clear connection between productivity in the workplace and happiness.  Happier employees are more productive than their colleagues, and are more mindful of interpersonal relationships  (Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014)  Read more about happiness and flourishing workplaces  and Happiness at work.

By asking participants to reflect on their wellbeing levels and record their experience in a journal it increases the likelihood that the 28 day attention training will have long lasting benefits.  They will practice something new, reflect on the change and document the results.  This embeds learning.

 What the organisation gets from this training

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  • A training attention workshop for their staff
  • Employees with an improved ability to focus their attention
  • Happier and more engaged staff

 

Reaching out to the community

In Australia we are charging an introductory rate of $50 for each person signing up. Fifty percent of this will be donated to charity.  We are seeking four Australian charities to buddy up with.

In the UK this is £30 per person and once again we are looking for four charities to connect with.

The next step

We’re looking for organisations, initially in Queensland and Central London, who want to advertise the scheme to their staff.

For more details contact me  at Breathe Australia (for both UK and Australian enquiries).

 About Breathe Australia and Breathe London

I set up Breathe in 2003 with Tom Te Whaiti.  After a Corporate Finance career, in Sydney with KPMG, I left for India and studied to be a Yoga teacher.  In 2007 my study of wellbeing led me to enrol in the first Masters Degree course in Positive Psychology in Europe.  Since I left Australia I created a thriving wellbeing business in the UK with a team of twenty mind and body therapists.  Back in the UK my personal wellbeing work has expanded to include corporate wellbeing and over the last ten years I have presented on Positive Psychology, Emotional Intelligence and Meditation to staff at the House of Commons, Amerada Hess and back at KPMG. The UK business is Breathe London www.breathe-london.com

My Masters degree dissertation was “Introducing Attention Techniques at Work”

We have now set up a Positive Psychology business in Townsville and Sydney and are hoping to make a positive impact in business, education and the wider community here, and throughout Australia.   For more information check out www.breathe-australia.com

Academic Support

Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004; Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005

Fredrickson, B., Cohn, M., Coffey, K. A, Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1045–1062.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014

More about continuous partial attention https://breathenews.wordpress.com/positive-psychology-articles/neural-plasticity/

http://maggie-jackson.com/books/

 

 

Positive Psychology – Its about time

This is the seventh in our series of blogs and newsletters about the courses and teachers that have inspired me.  This week I’m looking at how our perception of time and the thoughts we have influences our wellbeing

Where we focus our thoughts in time and whether we have a positive or negative attitude to events, affects the way we feel and our levels of wellbeing.  Some thought patterns nurture us and help us to achieve our dreams whilst others hold us back. We have the ability to think about the past, present or future and we can events in these thought dimensions in either a “positive” or “negative” way.

Research tells us that each of us has a certain amount of mental energy which we are able to use for work, rest and play.  It also suggests that we have differing propensities to spend more of this energy thinking about the past or the future than being present and experiencing life in real time.  In addition to this, we interpret the past in either a positive or negative way and interpret the present either by enjoying the moment or by seeing life as a fatalistic stream of events outside of our control.

We can divide our propensity to think in certain ways as follows:

·       Thinking about the past in a positive way
·       Thinking about the past in a negative way
·       Being here and now and experiencing events in real time
·       Experiencing current events in a fatalistic way
·       Being future minded

Obviously there are other ways to think, such as thinking about the future in a positive or a negative way or being in a meditative, non thinking state and so on.  However the five dimensions above cover most types of thinking. We all spend time moving between these five main states, switching from thoughts about the past to help us interpret the present and then dreaming and planning the future.

Each of these styles of thinking serves an important purpose.  Happy memories help us reflect on past achievements, cherish the things and people we love.  They also help create positive emotions, which have a wonderful impact on our physiology.  Negative memories from the past serve as a warning to us to modify behaviours and avoid dangers.

Being present and enjoying the here and now helps us to enjoy life as it happens in real time.  If your thoughts constantly take you away from now, your ability to fully experience events as they happen is lessened.  Occasionally being fatalistic can be of benefit because there is an appreciation that although we strive in life to be healthy, loving and kind, sometimes we all have to let go and accept the inevitability of change.  Thinking about the future sets the stage for our growth, can fuel our optimism and helps us plot a course through life.  This constant movement and progression enables us to enjoy a stream of new experiences in the present.

The ideal situation is for us to have balanced ways of thinking.  This means that our thoughts effortlessly flow between time dimensions and attitudes without getting stuck.  The problem is that our thoughts and emotions tend to be “sticky”. To give you an example, if we have a strong negative experience, we may experience a strong negative emotional reaction which may have a profound physiological effect on our body and neurological effect on our brain.  Sometimes when we experience, or think we are about to experience a similar event, the old thoughts, emotions and physical reactions come rushing back.

Such patterns can develop quickly or build over time and before long, without us even realising it, we are caught in a pattern of ruminating over past negative experiences, replaying them again and again, blaming others, blaming ourselves and reducing our energy and ability to think about other things. Such patterns can debilitate us and lock us into the past. In such a scenario, if we have a propensity to negatively ruminate we increase the likelihood that we interpret new events in a negative manner.  The way our thoughts determine our enjoyment of experience is profound.

The happiest people tend to be able to switch effortlessly between different thought dimensions. The unhappiest people tend to spend most of their time negatively dwelling about the past or being fatalistic about their lot in life. Being happy is associated with a good balance of being future minded, enjoying the present and reflecting positively on the past.

Consider the following questions :

Are you grounded and feel warmth and love from past memories?
Is the past a place of fear that stops you enjoying the present and planning for a positive future?
Are you resigned to your lot in life?
Do you live life now and feel life as it flows past?
Do you spend your time dreaming about the future?

Increasing awareness of where your thoughts tend to lie is an important stage in personal development.  Once you know you have tendencies to think in particular ways then you can reflect on how these affect your life and what, if anything, you would like to change.

The future:
I’d like to be more future minded:
How can I set goals which will energise me and are achievable ?
What can I do to learn how to use positive visualisation to imagine a bright, vibrant future?
How can I identify what I’m best at and how can I use my top strengths best?

The present:
I’d like to enjoy and savour living in the present
How can I introduce mindfulness and meditation in my life?
How do I ensure that I spend a few moments appreciating the natural environment every day?
How can I focus my attention every day on the little things that bring me joy?

The past:
I’d like to spend more time savouring the good things from my past and my achievements:
How can I spend a few moments every day thinking about the heroes in my life?  What strengths do they have and how do they provide a guiding light in my life?
What can I do to challenge my beliefs about people or situations that have hurt me in the past?
How can I spend more time reflecting on my achievements and those of loved ones?  What did I learn from those experiences?

Maybe we have a tendency to spend less of our energy living in the present and listening to other people because as we grow older there is more information about the past contained in our memories and we are constantly drawn to reliving past experiences and interpreting the present by relating it to the past.

Following on from last weeks newsletter, we delude ourselves that we are getting wiser as we get older and that we have a safe bank of reliable data to rely on.  This is very far from the truth.  Research about wisdom indicates that there is no relationship between age and wisdom.  We need to be more like children and not take the present for granted.

The present is magical and real.  Life is to be enjoyed here and now.

Positive Psychology research about being happy and living in the present

Living in the present

The teachings of Buddhism,  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. A few months back 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.”

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.

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?

Let me know what you think……