Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, reads the US Declaration of Independence. These are the unalienable rights given to every human. Unfortunately the document is less specific on how to go about pursuing happiness.
Over the years most of us have formed ideas on what we need to be happy. Most of those ideas revolve around having more money, looking better, finding love, etc. And while all of those can make you happier research shows their impact is surprisingly small and often fleeting; when people get a windfall (win lottery, get a better job, or get married) they become happier for about 6 months after which they return to their ‘normal’ level of happiness.
Research done by Prof. Matt Killingworth from University of California suggests that the answer to happiness could be much simpler, practically sitting right under your nose. The study showed people are much happier when they focus on the present moment. Conversely, when the mind starts wandering most people get significantly unhappier.
If you prefer a video, here’s a TED talk where Prof. Killingworth describes the research and his results:
Tracking happiness with iPhones
This study was a bit different in that the participants weren’t confined into artificial laboratory settings. Everything was tracked via an iPhone app from https://www.trackyourhappiness.org/.
Here’s how the Prof. Killingworth described it:
How does it work? Basically, I send people signals at random times throughout the day, and then I ask them questions about their experience at the instant just before the signal. The idea is that if we can watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day, and try to understand how things like what people are doing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and all the other factors that describe our experiences relate to those ups and downs in happiness, we might eventually be able to discover some of the major causes of human happiness.
Several times a day the participants answered questions like these:
- How are you feeling?
- What are you doing?
- Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?
During the research they managed to collect over 650’000 real time reports from over 15’000 people. So we are talking about a substantial dataset.
So what does the data show?
Wandering mind is the best predictor of unhappiness
Here’s the Prof. describing the findings:
How does mind-wandering relate to happiness? We found that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not, which is unfortunate considering we do it so often. Moreover, the size of this effect is large—how often a person’s mind wanders, and what they think about when it does, is far more predictive of happiness than how much money they make, for example.
Let me repeat the main findings:
- People are substantially less happy during the times their minds wander
- The more often a person’s mind wanders, the more likely he or she is to be unhappy
- Still mind is more important for happiness than how much money you make
Prof. Killingworth explained the results thusly. When the mind wanders it often gravitates towards the stresses and worries in our lives. In other words, the wandering mind focuses on negative things more often than on positive things.
Because of the large data set and the real-time nature of the data, they were also able to show that mind-wandering causes unhappiness, rather than that the mind wanders more during times we are unhappy. They were able to show that mind wandering precedes decline in happiness.
How being happy helps your skin
Happiness is of course a worthy goal on its own, but this could also help your skin. Research shows people are more likely to get acne breakouts during times of stress. It’s likely that when your mind starts thinking about worries and anxieties you experience stress and that’s what makes you unhappier; studies show a clear connection between stress and depression. Stress also triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called substance P that has been shown to cause inflammation in the skin. I call it the molecular link between stress and acne.
This is why it’s so important to practice present moment awareness. Most people recommend meditation for this, but I don’t think you have to start a formal meditation program. You could just as easily practice this during the idle moments of the day. Maybe you commute every day (who doesn’t). Instead of listening to music, why not spend 5 to 10 minutes of your commute time focusing on the present moment? Pay attention to the sounds around you. Passively observe what happens around you. Focus on how your body feels. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
You can also consider mindfulness apps or set a simple repeating reminder on your phone to remind you to focus on the present moment. Let technology help you to be more mindful for a change.
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