I’m slightly obsessed about the TED Radio Hour. There was a recent episode called Simply Happy, featuring the work of Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, that struck a chord with me.
Killingsworth created an iPhone app called Track Your Happiness that captures feelings in real-time. Basically, it pings you at random times and asks: How are you feeling now, and what are you doing? He aggregated data from over 15,000 users and came to a surprising conclusion.
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
It hit home with me because I was, at that particular moment, unhappy. I had taken some vacation time to catch up on a variety of personal tasks, but my two-year old son got sick and he needed attention. My wife and I spent a lot of time taking him to the hospital for lab tests and staying up with him as he battled fever through the night. It would often take 20 minutes of creative persuasion to talk him into an eight minute nebulizer treatment. He’s not potty trained yet and the doctor wanted a urine sample so I sat in the bathroom with him for hours, waiting for him to go while he watched videos on an iPad and drank lots of water.
The entire time I was thinking about all of the tasks that I had planned to do during my vacation time. My mind was wandering to paperwork for taxes, cleaning the garage, organizing the basement, and so on. The more my son needed me, the more I thought about what was not getting done. I was not happy!
Killingsworth’s advice is to try not to let your mind wander, to be in the moment. If my son is nervous about a chest x-ray, I should focus on helping him understand that it’s fast and painless, not thinking about how to fit in an oil change over lunch. Over the next few days I made a conscious effort to be more engaged with my son. It may not have been how I planned to use my vacation time, but it was very rewarding to simply be with him when he needed a little extra loving.
It’s easy to find examples in my professional life as well. I’m sitting in a meeting and my mind wanders to picking up dinner on the way home. I’m staring at a spreadsheet and my mind wanders to a project I’m running for a non-profit I support. Too often, we rationalize this wandering as multitasking. The truth is, we’re not putting our best effort into what we’re doing or thinking, and yet that’s precisely what should happen in order for us to be happy.
So the simple formula is Happy = In the Moment, where staying in the moment means not letting your mind wander. Give yourself permission to be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing. Here is Matt Killingsworth’s full TED Talk on Staying in the Moment.