Study Finds A Surprising Way To Be Happier

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.

Stress also negatively affects other factors behind acne, such as hormones, blood sugar levels and gut health.

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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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

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7 thoughts on “Study Finds A Surprising Way To Be Happier

  1. I suppose that is what Buddhism has been saying for the last 2,500 years- you only have the present moment and you should concentrate on that. i.e.Mindfulness, silencing the 10,000 chattering monkeys. Read any book by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and you will find that message. All aspects of life can be used to be mindful, washing the dishes, eating your lunch, sitting on the toilet, walking to the supermarket.
    I also think that life is about luck. If you have good genes there is an element of luck in that.
    But if practicing Mindfulness can help your health, improve your luck, or be more philosophical about your life, then I am all for that.
    Ultimately, each person has to find their own way. Yes, it’s true, too much thinking can be bad for you!

    Michael C

    • Right on the money there Michael. Buddhist seems to be more practical than other major religions and that’s why I like (or I should say dislike less) it more than the other ones.

      Though I should say that what this post talks about is a bit different from mindfulness. I guess you could call this ‘mindfulness lite’. This is more about keeping your mind on the task at hand instead of letting it dwell on stresses and worries. Whereas mindfulness is more about detached attention and passively observing the world around you.

  2. That’s why yoga is so good. I know it’s not a study but I recommend reading Eckhart Tolle’s books on the matter. Nothing ever calms me down as much as listening to the “A New Earth” audio book. It’s one of the most profound books I have ever read. Seppo, have you read it?
    Btw, if I have purchased your book a year and a half ago, can I get the updates or do I have to pay?

    • I have read many of Tolle’s book. Now that I’m more skeptical and scientific I don’t really care for the nonsensical and metaphysical babble. That said, Tolle does offer some very good techniques for calming the mind and releasing stress. For that alone the books are a good read.

      If you are a customer you don’t have to pay for updates. If you don’t have an account on this site, please drop me a line via the contact form and I’ll set you up. Also, let me know your receipt number (if you still have it), so I can find your order.

  3. Seppo, I know it may sound strange but recently I’ve been interested in psychopathy and psychopaths are those who really live only in the present moment and don’t ever worry about the future or regret the past (that’s what Robert Hare says, not some random person on the Internet). They never experience anxiety or something of the kind. I wonder if psychopaths ever have acne? I don’t think someone ever studied that but it would be interesting.

    • I have to say I have no idea. The little I know of psychopaths is that they lack empathy more than anything. That alone doesn’t necessarily translate to less stress or anxiety, it just means they care less about other people around them.

      Regardless of mental state, these people are still subject to the same physical causes of acne, like hormones and inflammation.

  4. They have shallow emotions and they don’t really experience anxiety or stress. Even their anger is shallow and short lived. But skin problems is the last problem with them so I don’t think someone researched that. But it would be interesting how the skin of a person who does not really have any emotions reacts to environmental changes.

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