Which of the following do you think would make you feel happiest?
- being stuck in traffic and thinking about anything else besides being stuck in traffic
- being stuck in traffic and thinking about being stuck in traffic
According to science, answer (B) is the winner. Being present, even if your present isn’t particularly enjoyable, will make you happier, and help improve memory, reduce stress, increase concentration, and promote deeper sleep. Unfortunately, 47% of the time we aren’t thinking about what we are doing. The percentages vary according to activity. For instance, 65% of the time spent brushing our teeth, we’re thinking about other things…and when we’re at work, our mind wanders 50% of the time. Focus on the present for a moment and think about how much happier…and productive…you’d be, if you stayed focus on what you are doing, especially at work!
What Harvard Researchers Discovered
A 2010 study conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert and published in the journal Science, showed that the more our minds wander, the less happy we feel. To test this theory, they developed a smartphone app that monitored people’s self-reported happiness meters and activities at various times during the day. The smartphone would check in and participants would complete a questionnaire that measured:
1) how happy they were at that specific moment
2) what activity they were engaged in
3) if they were thinking about the activity they were doing
Results confirmed that when thought and action were aligned, participants were happier.
How to Develop Mental Presence
The human mind is restless by design, and controlling it takes as much exercise as building muscle and aerobic capacity. Fortunately, just like your muscles, your mind adapts to the mental exercises you perform. The first step is to become aware. Has a negative thought taken hold? Are you spinning a scenario or fantasy in your mind? Are you luxuriating on a gorgeous beach but thinking about the ski trip you’re planning to take this winter? You have to first become aware of your wandering mind, and then you can reel it back in.
To realign yourself to the present…to match thought with action…turn your attention to your senses. If negative thoughts have taken over, remind yourself that everything right at this moment is okay. Focus on touch, sound, taste, smell, and sight. Sticking with our beach example, concentrate on the feel of the warm sun on your skin, the sound of the waves, the slight breeze through your hair. Become fully immersed in the now, and appreciate the moment for what it is, even if it’s not a moment you’re especially enjoying. Let yourself feel the emotions, good and bad, and then release them on a breath, and bring your mind back to the now.
Developing a mindfulness meditation practice can help rewire your brain. What we pay attention to and practice, grows, and you can literally transform your thought patterns and mental habits with meditative reflection and behavior changes. A 2013 Oxford study showed that 273 people who took a 4-week online mindfulness course reduced anxiety by 58%, depression by 57%, and stress by 40%. The take away? Spend at least 5 minutes today aligning your actions with your thought and exercising mental presence!