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Happiness is a state of mind

Discover why being busy may not lead to happiness

Towards the end of a one-to-one Bring Mindfulness to Life session, a participant told me that she had decided to stop answering “busy” when people asked her how she was.

She had come to realise that describing her life in that way brought with it a sense of pressure and discomfort. And, that whilst she did have a great many things to do outside of work, they were activities that she chose to do and generally took enjoyment from.

She had thus begun to say “good” when asked how she was, as truthfully these things felt good to her especially when she did them mindfully.

Busy has replaced fine

Like her, I have noticed that increasingly we say "busy" where "fine" was once the stock response.

However, when fine was used it tended to be the end of the topic whereas there’s also a stock reply to the busy answer: “o yeah, me too, tell me about it.”

We then may go on to tell each other about our busyness.

Busy does not mean successful

Schooled in the belief that achievement means success, we proudly list the things we are up to almost wearing busy like a medal.

With the same frame of reference, when we have no recognisable output to tell of, we might feel shame.

I have a friend who is not comfortable spending time on a Sunday reading a book for enjoyment – yes, really – but two hours "productively" educating himself with a newspaper he feels is an OK use of his time.

Busy is not the new happy

We now consider ourselves so busy that we schedule phone-calls not just in business but to friends and family, and no longer drop by on the off chance.

Yet, for all the pressure we may feel as we cram exercise, catch-ups and hobbies into our days and lives along with the school run, dog walk, kids’ activities, we don’t appear to be deriving the equivalent sense of happiness in return.

Why should that be? Surely, if we are doing all these things, we should be happy?

Well, it turns out happiness depends not on what we are filling our days with but what we are filling our minds with.

Happiness is a state of mind

Psychologists Killingsworth and Gilbert (1) found that we are happiest when our thinking and doing are aligned. When we do something but our attention is elsewhere, we are likely to be on a pathway to discontent.

“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost,” they wrote.

Why should this be so? It’s all to do with mind-wandering which naturally occurs whenever we are “off-task”. Whenever we are not paying attention to what we are doing, our mind is freed up to roam.

Unfortunately for us, mind wandering generally leads to an upsetting or regretting thought.

This too is natural. We review or rehearse as a means to keep ourselves safe in future situations. Additionally, each time we entertain that negative thought, the more we are wiring our brains to revisit it again and again.

Why does that matter? Because we do it a lot, far more than you would guess.

Where’s your mind at?

To understand mind-wandering Killingsworth developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals.

Each time, they were asked how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about that activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Using this research method, the researchers collected more than 250,000 records about mood, activity and thinking and found that:

(a) 47% of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing, and

(b) that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

So too with you; almost half the time your mind is elsewhere.

Don't believe me? Think back to the last time you drove the car or stood in a queue.

The good news

Some say to become world-class at something you need to do 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. If this is true then it explains why the mind wanders so much!

Others say knowledge is power. And now you know the route to happiness.

It may be hard to believe that paying attention to your present moment experience is where contentment lies, but what else can you do?

You can't control the weather, what your boss says, whether you will win the lottery. In fact most things are out of your hands but you can control what you pay attention to.

You can train your brain to wander less and begin to attend to more of what you do.

You can learn to bring mindfulness to life and in so doing be happier.

So, the next time you notice your mind is elsewhere...

Take a second to pause, consciously breathe in and out a couple of times and then use one of your senses to connect you back with your current experience.

You might choose to listen to sounds, feel your feet on the ground, examine something in your surroundings.

Don't think about what's occurring. It's more a tuning in to the present; attending with one of your senses.

And it's in that second it happens, a moment of happiness or at least no thought.

Let me know how you get on in the comments.

Take care of you.

Got questions about mindfulness?


1. Bradt, S. 2010. A Wandering mind is not a happy mind [Internet] Harvard Gazette


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