In our therapy practice in San Francisco, we’re often asked the question, “How can I be happy?”
You’ve probably wondered the same thing. We all have a drive towards increasing happiness and decreasing pain.
You may fantasize that something external will bring you happiness – making more money, getting in shape, a new relationship or a beach vacation.
While these things can contribute to a sense of security (more money), mastery (getting in shape), connection (new relationship) or pleasure (beach vacation), they don’t create a lasting sense of happiness.
Why is this?
Happiness isn’t something outside of you. It’s something inside – and it’s not more self-love or self-acceptance, although both are great and are necessary to ease emotional suffering.
The something inside is the quality of attention you bring to your every day experiences. Because paying attention to what you’re doing in each moment can make you happier, according to happiness researchers.
Happiness researchers Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Goldman set out to discover what makes people happy.
What they found was that people reported feeling happy not when buying a new gadget or while on vacation, but when they were paying attention.
When people weren’t paying attention – when they were thinking about something other than what they were actually doing in the moment – they reported being less happy.
For example, if someone was thinking about their to-do list while waiting in line for coffee they tended to be less happy than the person whose mind wasn’t wandering while doing the same thing.
The researchers called this thinking-about-one-thing-while-doing-another mind wandering. The more mind-wandering you do, the less happy you’ll be.
But what if you don’t like what you’re doing?
You may think that letting your mind wander while doing something you don’t like helps you get through it, but the research showed the opposite. It didn’t matter if the thing the person was doing was unpleasant – like commuting to work – they still reported being less happy if their mind was elsewhere.
So the take away is:
Thinking about one thing while doing something else = less happiness.
It sounds simple, right? Just think about what you’re doing instead of letting your mind wander and you’ll be happier.
Then why is this hard to do?
Our minds are thought generating machines. Unless we intentionally focus on the here and now, our minds will tend to wander.
Depending on what you’re struggling with, your mind will wander in different ways. Here are some examples of mental health challenges that produce particular types of mind wandering:
Mind wandering to the past or having negative thoughts about the future. Regrets may run through your mind, thinking you should have said or done something differently in the past. Or your mind can feel like it’s in a fog, making it hard to focus on anything.
Mind wandering about the future with fearful thoughts. You may worry about all the things that could go wrong in a situation. Or you may feel a free-floating anxiety that causes your heart to beat fast and your thoughts to race, making being present difficult.
Mind wandering caused by intrusive or repetitive thoughts which may be a symptom of chronic PTSD. Your body feels on high alert with your flight, fight and freeze response activated. You may feel unsafe. Having your mind wander, or dissociate, may have been something you developed to cope with past trauma. Even though the danger is over now, your mind habitually checks out.
Mind wandering caused by thinking about doing, or not doing, a compulsive or addictive behavior. Whether your vice is alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping or self-harm (or a combination), the struggle is similar. Your mind gets lost in thinking about engaging in the substance or activity, thinking about resisting it, or feeling ashamed about not resisting it.
If you can relate to any of the above challenges you know how hard it is to not let your mind wander. But by practicing mindfulness, you can learn to be present more often.
Mindfulness is the Antidote to Mind Wandering
You may have heard a lot about mindfulness. There has been an explosion of research and popular interest in mindfulness in the past 15 years. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills break down mindfulness into clear steps so you know what to actually do to be mindful.
Observe and Describe: The Building Blocks of Mindfulness
Observe is noticing what is happening just in this moment. You can observe what is going on outside of you or inside of you.
Describe is putting words on what you observed in a factual way, without adding interpretation or judgement.
Observe and Describe in action:
It’s early morning and Randy is standing on the street waiting for his work bus to arrive.
Randy doesn’t like waiting for the bus so he usually distracts himself by thinking about something else, like his upcoming weekend plans.
Using the observe skill, Randy shifts his attention away from his thoughts about the weekend to observe what is actually happening around him. He observes the morning light reflecting off the glass windows, the wet street from overnight rain and the damp air on his face.
He also observes what’s going on internally. He notices his rumbling stomach and tension in his neck.
Using the describe skill, Randy puts words to what he just observed, without adding judgements or interpretations. This helps him stay present with what is actually happening in the moment, rather than being lost in thought. And the more he can experience the present moment, the greater his chances of happiness.
Mindfulness takes practice. With gentle practice, you can train yourself to just be with each moment rather than letting your mind wander and missing out on life.