Well-Being//

Your Life Circumstances May Have a Lot Less To Do With Your Happiness

When are we happiest?

Courtesy of Pasuwan / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Pasuwan / Shutterstock

Humans spend billions of dollars every year looking for happiness. Many of us seek happiness in all sorts of places, hoping it might be bought or found.

Others expect people close to them to make them happy.

There are lots of research that have proven this is a waste of time (not to mention money). True contentment is closer than you think.

We often think it’s our life circumstances — problems, issues, setbacks, tragedies, and misfortunes that make us unhappy. And that if we could change those obstacles, our circumstances would be different, and we will finally be happy. We easily assign the cause of our unhappiness to these external factors.

It turns out, it’s not our circumstances that make us happy or unhappy. According to research, we’re happiest when thought and action are aligned, even if they’re only aligned to do the simplest of tasks.

There is an old saying: “Happiness is a state of mind.” As it turns out, it’s true. Studies suggest that experiences that engage our body and mind might be a key to happiness.

In an “experience sampling” (interrupting people at unpredictable intervals and asking them what they’re doing, and what’s on their minds) research, Killingsworth and Gilbert found:

(i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

Participants reported being happiest while having sex, exercising or having a conversation. They reported being least happy while using a home computer, resting or working.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” concluded Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, the authors of the study, which was published in the Nov. 12 issue of “Science.” “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost,” they wrote.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth said in the statement.

We found that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not, which is unfortunate considering we do it so often. Moreover, the size of this effect is large — how often a person’s mind wanders, and what they think about when it does, is far more predictive of happiness than how much money they make, for example.

The key lesson from their findings on 250,000 data points on the moods, thoughts, feelings, and actions of 2,250 people as they went about their daily lives is that for greater happiness: think about what you’re doing.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a leading researcher in positive psychology, refers to this state of mind as “flow,” — a highly focused mental state. In this state, we are highly alert and totally focused with one-pointed attention.

Achieving flow is not as easy as it sounds for many of us, because the brain is wired against your attempts stay present.

The human brain has an amazing capacity to review past information and plan for future situations. Unfortunately, if not handled properly, can hurt your ability to think about what you are doing.

“Forty-seven percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. Consider that statistic next time you’re sitting in a meeting or driving down the street,” writes Matt Killingsworth.

Breaking the unhealthy habit of daydreaming about the past or the future takes time and a lot of thinking about your thinking.

According to research, even when we’re quietly at rest, our brains settle into a pattern of activity that corresponds to mind-wandering. This makes it incredibly hard to be consumed by what you are doing at any moment in time.

As the authors of the study on happiness rightly summarised, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

It may be hard to achieve a state of rest, but the good news is, you can train your mind to wander less. You can become much more present in everything you do and be happy.

But you will have to work hard at it. Like the pursuit of any skill, with time and deliberate practice, you will get better at wandering less.

You probably find it hard to believe that something as simple as being mindful can cause true happiness. But researchers note that people of high socioeconomic status are no more likely to be happy than people of a lower socioeconomic status.

Your happiness is not dependent on where you live, what you can afford, a better career or relationship but from your cultivating a healthy and balanced state of mind.

Mental focus might be key to your happiness. The pursuit of “flow” is probably what you should be focusing on if you want true and lasting fulfilment. The ability to focus, will not only help you get more done, it will also make your happier.

The happiness that follows flow is within your reach — no matter your economic or social status. Almost any activity can produce flow provided you can keep your mind from wandering.

Learn to control your attention. Focus consciousness on the tasks of everyday life in the knowledge that when you act in the fullness of the flow experience, you will be happy in the moment at any giving opportunity.

Stop wandering toward unhappiness!

The next time you find yourself lost in thought, take a conscious pause, follow that with a deep breath, and bring yourself back to your present task. Your happiness depends on it.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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