A wandering mind is an unhappy mind
As human beings our ability to think has many advantages, but it also means that we spend a lot of time thinking instead of being present and paying attention to what we’re doing or what’s happening around us. It’s this disconnection between our mind and our actions that allows for stress, anxiety, depression and overwhelm to impact our lives. A realignment between our mind and actions naturally awakens happiness.
Before I continue, take a moment to recognize, in your own experience, that when you are stressed, anxious or depressed, your mind is full of thoughts. There is no need to judge it, just acknowledge it.
A study was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University which reconfirmed what ancient wisdom has been saying, that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. This study demonstrates that people who are present in the moment, being aware of what they are doing, were happier that those who were thinking about something other than what they were doing, regardless of what they were thinking about.
While negative mind wandering was the biggest indicator to unhappiness, even those whose minds wandered in a positive direction were less happy than those who were simply being present.
What does this mean?
This means that if you’re doing something as simple as washing the dishes, if you do it mindfully by paying attention to what you’re doing, you are happier than if you wash dishes but think about something else, even if the thought is pleasant, inspiring or exciting.
What’s important here, is that this goes far beyond just thinking positively. Positive thinking has its benefits and being able to shift your mind from a negative thought to a positive one will shift your mood in a constructive and positive direction, however, positive thinking is limited because it is still based on you thinking about something, whereas happiness does not require thinking.
In simple terms how does this work?
When we bring our attention to what we’re doing in the present moment it quietens our mind, and like meditation, it takes us from a stressed, angry or depressed state (a thinking state), to a calm state. From a calm state we remove the filter of emotions and thinking that cloud our better judgement and happiness.
This study, as with ancient teachings, also demonstrates that happiness is not something we can seek, we can’t create it. It’s an experience that naturally emerges when we quiet our mind.
“You need not aspire for or get any new state. Get rid of your present thoughts, that is all.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
So, what can you do now?
If we are happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing, then all we need to do is bring our awareness to whatever we are doing in the present moment creating a realignment between our mind and actions. Another word for this is “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is a simple and effective way to quiet our mind and shift our mental state. It’s available to everyone and can be done anywhere and any time.
Example – Mindful Dishwashing
I will give an example here of washing the dishes, however the same principle can be applied to any activity.
Keep your attention focused on what you are doing. Feel the texture of the sponge, the plates and utensils, hear the sound of the water running and the dishes touching each other, watch the water run over the plates, watch the water run over the pieces of food stuck to the plates, notice how some pieces of food are harder to remove than other.
Become absorbed in the process. Wonder and curiosity will go a long way!
As you wash mindfully you may find that your mind wanders and starts thinking about something. Do not judge yourself or your thoughts. At the moment when you recognize you are thinking just bring your attention back to washing the dishes.
Notice how you feel different when washing mindfully as opposed to washing while thinking about something else (mindless washing). Notice how your mental state has shifted and your mind is calmer. You might feel more present in your body.
Is there and sense of happiness emerging?
Some other mindful suggestions
- Feel your feet in your shoes or on the ground.
- Listen to your footsteps as you walk.
- Feel your breath as it flows through your nostrils.
- Feel the touch of your clothes on your body.
- Feel the texture and taste of your food as you eat.
- Feel the contact when you hug someone (mindful hugs are the best).
The list of what you can be mindful of is endless.
Will you be perfect first go? Most likely not, but like training anything it takes practice. As you practice you will see progress.
As you practice mindfulness, the most important part is that you do not judge yourself or your thoughts when they do wander. Yes, I’m repeating this part because it’s important. At the moment when you realize your mind is wandering, simply bring it back. Repeat and repeat.
Now go and practice. Be mindful. Allow happiness to flow.