A study conducted by psychologists at Harvard University showed that people spend 47 % of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing; this wandering of the mind makes them unhappy.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that has a high emotional cost” say the authors Killingsworth and Gilbert, the psychologists at Harvard who conducted the study.
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or will never happen at all.
People are happier when making love, exercising or talking. People are less happy when resting, working or when they use a computer at home.
According to the authors, “the level of mind wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness” and the frequency with which our minds leave the present, and where they wander off to, is a better indicator of unhappiness than the activities that we are actually developing.
The study shows that the mind wandering is usually the cause, not the consequence, of unhappiness.
“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the present moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, according to the authors.
The growing practice of Eastern disciplines, such as Yoga and Meditation, certainly correspond to an inner need in people.
This new study suggests, according to the authors, that these practices are correct.
But how can we train our minds to be more present?
Make each day a watertight compartment. Dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is completely useless. Think of the future only when you need to make plans. Register the plan and follow it when deemed appropriate. If the plan, over time, becomes unfit, change it. Make plans, but don’t worry. Note that the word preoccupation means “pre-occupation” (from the Latin praeoccupatiōne-, «prior occupation»).
Live the present moment. If you are driving, observe the signs, your speed, the distance to the car ahead and drive carefully. Don’t drive thinking about the meeting you’re going to have, nor what happened before you left the house. Listen to music and not to the news. Play a relaxing CD.
When you want to be informed on what’s going on, listen to the news or read the paper – but do just that.
If you are in the company of other people, focus on them and on the conversation you’re having. Don’t be absent.
Before arriving to work, for example, while still in your parked car, or on the way to the train, try to spend 10 minutes paying attention to the present moment. Close your eyes, relax, sit in an upright position, concentrate on your breathing. Inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale. Where appropriate, count to 10 while making these movements. You will notice that a number of times your mind will be wandering, chasing some thought. When you notice that you’re wandering, concentrate once again on your breathing. Above all, don’t worry if your mind is always wandering, enjoy these moments of calm and concentration.
Protect yourself from the e-mail: treat the e-mail as the classic mail: it only comes once a day. Do not read your e-mail repeatedly (unless you have to, for work-related reasons). Don’t stand guard to it.
Throughout the day, try to keep your attention on the present moment, on the tasks you are actively carrying out and on what is actually happening in your day. Try to get a few moments to take a deep breath and concentrate on the present moment. After lunch, try setting an alarm on your mobile phone to beep once every hour. Each time the phone beeps, stop what you’re doing and concentrate on your breathing for one minute. Keep your mind concentrate on your breathing (“the present moment”).
Finally, at the end of the day, after work and on your way home, stop, once again, for 10 minutes. Turn off the radio, switch off your mobile phone and, during this period, simply be present. Let all the thoughts that appear to pass and flow away. Just concentrate on your breathing. This way, you will release your work stress, you can prepare yourself to return home and actually be present with your family.