Last month I was driving on a lovely stretch of road surrounded by farm fields, trees, sunshine, and blue sky. There was very little traffic and I wasn’t in a hurry. I couldn’t help but feel great. I was smiling and enjoying the scenery and congratulating myself on being in, and savouring, the present moment. However, my next conscious thought was that my mood had totally shifted. I was frowning and feeling concerned and frustrated even though nothing unpleasant had happened to account for the shift – same blue sky, same beautiful scenery, same peaceful drive. So what had happened?
For several weeks, I had been taking an online course on happiness and had recently finished a segment on the link between mindfulness and happiness. Mindfulness was defined as “a state in which your attention is not distracted by something other than what’s happening right now.” The course referred to a mind wandering study by researcher Matt Killingsworth. The purpose of the study was to watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day and to “discover some of the things that really have a big influence on happiness”. Thousands of participants were asked three questions at random points throughout the day:
- “How do you feel, on a scale ranging from very bad to very good?”
- “What are you doing, on a list of 22 different activities including things like eating and working and watching TV?”
- “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” (The participants thought about something other than what they were currently doing a whopping 47% of the time.)
The study found that people are happier when they are focussed on the present moment and paying attention to where they are and what they are doing – even if it is not the most pleasant task, like commuting to work. People are least happy when their minds wander. A big part of the reason may be that when our minds wander we often think about unpleasant things, which makes us less happy. However, the study showed that even when people are “thinking about something they would describe as pleasant, they’re actually just slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering.”
And that’s what happened to me during my pleasant drive through the countryside. My mind started to wander. I was no longer focussed on where I was and what I was doing. When I noticed the change in my mood I retraced my thoughts to see what happened. I realized that, as I was enjoying the scenery, I passed a large garden centre which reminded me that I needed to repot some of my plants at home. That thought led me to think of all the other chores that I needed to do but hadn’t got to yet. No wonder my mood changed! I went from enjoying a pleasant drive to stressing about all the chores I needed to do.
I don’t think I fully understood the correlation between mind wandering and unhappiness until that moment in the car. The change in my mood was dramatic and only happened because my mind wandered to a less pleasant place. So now when I notice myself slipping into an unhappy state, I try to stop and step back from my thoughts so that I can discover where my mind has been. Dr. Raj explained in the happiness course that by stepping back, you put distance between you and your thoughts and emotions which causes your thoughts to slow down and your feelings to lower in intensity. Your whole system calms down and you feel more tranquil and less stressed. So, if you want to be happier (perhaps up to 47% of the time), try to be mindful and keep your attention on what is happening right now.