Happiness is not found on automatic pilot

People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.

This the conclusion of recent research carried out by psychologists Professor Daniel Gilbert and Doctoral student Matthew Killingsworth of Harvard University.Killingsworth and Gilbert write, ‘A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’

iPhone app

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Killingsworth designed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers over an age range of 18—88 and a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.

At random intervals during the day people were asked

  • how happy they were at that moment
  • what activity they were engaged in
  • if they were thinking about their current activity
  • if they were thinking about something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant

The result was that for almost half their time, the volunteers were simply not present to what they were doing.

Does this sound familiar?

Automatic pilot

Unlike other mammals, we human beings have the capability to ruminate about things that happened to us in the past, or to worry and daydream about what may, or may not happen to us in the future. In short: we are able to be in one place with our bodies and have our minds operating somewhere else altogether. In mindfulness training this is often referred to as being on automatic pilot. It’s the state of mind we are particularly prone to when we are engaged in activities that do not draw on our full intellectual or emotional participation. [Not surprisingly Gilbert and Killingsworth found that people were considerably less distracted while making love.]

It’s how we go around the supermarket, or travel home on the bus, or drive to work. When we’re engaged in routine, or mechanical activities such as preparing vegetables, washing up or doing housework we tend to be on automatic pilot. At work the amount of routine tasks will depend to some extent on the kind of job we have but whatever we do there will be repetitive talks to see to every day and the same people to work with.

Changing from automatic to manual

So, when we begin to practice mindfulness a good starting point is to notice how often we are simply not present to the activity we are engaged in and then, when we have noticed, to gently bring our attention back. We’re aiming to match our attention to our activity—to notice what we are doing without wanting it to be different. We could think of this as disconnecting the automatic pilot and going on to manual—it takes more effort but it guarantees that we are with ourselves, and what we are doing.

What effect does this have? For starters, it focuses our energy. Instead of doing one thing and thinking another, now we are supporting our doing with our attention. It means the task gets done quicker, with less chance of error and we are less tired by it. The decisions we make will be based on a fuller understanding of our options—if we are more present to what is happening then we are clearer about the real choices facing us.

As a bonus, it can also mean we enjoy things more because we are there while they are happening—so we notice the autumn colours as we walk to work, we appreciate the morning greetings from our colleagues and we actually taste the sandwich we’ve chosen for lunch. As we go home at the end of the day there is sense of having lived through a working day, rather than letting it carry us along. It could even be a reason to feel happy.

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