We spend billions of dollars each year looking for happiness, hoping it might be bought, consumed, found, or flown to. Other, more contemplative cultures and traditions assure us that this is a waste of time (not to mention money). ‘Be present’ they urge. Live in the moment, and there you’ll find true contentment.
Sure enough, our most fulfilling experiences are typically those that engage us body and mind, and are unsullied by worry or regret. In these cases, a relationship between focus and happiness is easy to spot. But does this relationship hold in general, even for simple, everyday activities? Is a focused mind a happy mind? Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert decided to find out.
In a recent study published in Science, Killingsworth and Gilbert discovered that an unnervingly large fraction of our thoughts - almost half - are not related to what we’re doing. Surprisingly, we tended to be elsewhere even for casual and presumably enjoyable activities, like watching TV or having a conversation. While you might hope all this mental wandering is taking us to happier places, the data say otherwise. Just like the wise traditions teach, we’re happiest when thought and action are aligned, even if they’re only aligned to wash dishes.
The ingredients of simple, everyday happiness are tough to study in the lab, and aren’t easily measured with a standard experimental battery of forced choices, eye-tracking, and questionnaires. Day to day happiness is simply too fleeting. To really study it’s causes, you need to catch people in the act of feeling good or feeling bad in real-world settings.
To do this, the researchers used a somewhat unconventional, but powerful, technique known as experience sampling. The idea behind it is simple. Interrupt people at unpredictable intervals and ask them what they’re doing, and what’s on their minds. If you do this many times a day for many days, you can start to assemble a kind of quantitative existential portrait of someone. Do this for many people, and you can find larger patterns and tendencies in human thought and behavior, allowing you to correlate moments of happiness with particular kinds of thought and action.
To sample our inner lives, the team developed an iPhone app that periodically surveyed people’s thoughts and activities. At random times throughout the day, a participant’s iPhone would chime, and present him with a brief questionnaire that asked how happy he was (on a scale from 1-100), what he was doing, and if he was thinking about what he was doing. If subjects were indeed thinking of something else, they reported whether that something else was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Responses to the questions were standardized, which allowed them to be neatly summarized in a database that tracked the collective moods, actions, and musings of about 5000 total participants (a subset of 2250 people was used in the present study).
In addition to awakening us to just how much our minds wander, the study clearly showed that we’re happiest when thinking about what we’re doing. Although imagining pleasant alternatives was naturally preferable to imagining unpleasant ones, the happiest scenario was to not be imagining at all. A person who is ironing a shirt and thinking about ironing is happier than a person who is ironing and thinking about a sunny getaway.
What about the kinds of activities we do, though? Surely, the hard-partiers and world travelers among us are happier than the quiet ones who stay at home and tuck in early? Not necessarily. According to the data from the Harvard group’s study, the particular way you spend your day doesn’t tell much about how happy you are. Mental presence - the matching of thought to action - is a much better predictor of happiness.