I used to work with a highly creative and socially conscious guy who told me once that he was always thinking about something.
Driving his car, brushing his teeth, eating his dinner -- most of the time his mind was occupied in pondering how to make the world better while his body was doing something else.
This probably made him more productive, but not more happy. Such is the conclusion of research I came across today in the New York Times: "When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays."
Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.
Well, this is pretty much what the Buddha taught several thousand years ago, along with countless other more modern yogis, sages, gurus, and meditation teachers. Indeed, a Boston reporter says her yoga instructor was right on top of this research, mentioning it in class.
If you want to be part of this ongoing study, and have an iPhone, head over to TrackYourHappiness.org and sign up to get an email or text message at random moments that asks you to report your happiness at the moment.
The NY Times story says:
When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being “very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.
I suspect, though, that one of the activities wasn't "being bothered by my iPhone when I'm having sex or otherwise happily engaged." But hey, advancing science comes with some costs.
Like most people, my mind is notoriously prone to wandering. I suppose it shouldn't, since I've meditated almost every day since I was twenty years old (I'm now much older and not much wiser at sixty-two).
I do find that concentrating on a mantra or my breath for 20-30 minutes starts off my morning in a focused manner. I enjoy not thinking much, or at all, about other stuff while I'm doing a single thing.
When I get going on my other activities of the day, I often backslide into what is called "monkey mind," internal chattering from lots of psychological tree tops that isn't related to what I'm actually doing.
This afternoon, though, inspired by the wandering mind = less happy research, I did better while grocery shopping. I consciously focused on each step I took from the parking lot into the south Salem Fred Meyer store.
Then I had a sense of slowing down, selecting one item at a time, being mindful of the details of choosing bananas, checking the expiration date on organic lettuce mix, finding an unfamiliar brand of hair conditioner that my wife had put on the list.
I really did feel happier shopping in this fashion. It struck me that external reality is considerably more interesting, by and large, than my thoughts -- which tend to be repetitive.
After loading the groceries into the back of our Hybrid Highlander and starting to drive off to the next shopping stop, I got another lesson in the value of mindfulness.
Still engaged in focusing on external reality, rather than my own mind, I saw a gorgeous young woman -- willowy, shapely, graceful -- walking through the parking lot. If I'd been zeroed in on what my psyche was chattering about, instead of what was sensuously present in the outside world, I could have missed her.
The research findings seem pretty obvious. But often we miss the obvious in our searching for happiness.