The secret of happiness?

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courtesy of Microsoft clip art

What is the secret of happiness?

A recent issue of the newsletter Brain Pickings offers three answers to this question from the book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Dr. Martin Seligman. He says the secret lies in: working to increase positive emotions; identifying our strengths and talents and applying them to as many aspects of our lives as possible; or using what we do well to help others.

Other ideas are that happiness comes from producing something of value, doing what you want and love, and forgetting about money when you choose a career.  Another author, Oliver Burkeman, has a different take on the topic. He says that happiness involves becoming comfortable with uncertainty, insecurity, and failure.

But what if happiness comes from an entirely different source, something that wouldn’t occur to most of us? What if happiness comes from keeping our minds on what we’re doing instead of daydreaming about what the boss said to us yesterday, what’s for dinner tonight, or how to afford the vacation we so badly need.

Dr. Matt Killingsworth, Health & Society Scholar at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, developed an app, “Track Your Happiness,” which sends a diverse group of users around the world random alerts at different times of the day asking them about “their moment-to-moment experiences” just before they received the alert. Subjects answer a number of questions including these three:  “How do you feel right now? What are you doing? Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”

Conclusions from this research? “People are substantially less happy when they’re mind-wandering than when they’re not.” What if we let our minds wander during activities we don’t enjoy doing? Wouldn’t we expect that daydreaming about something pleasant would make us happier than pulling weeds or doing something else we don’t enjoy? Despite what our intuition tells us — that the answer would be yes — Killingsworth’s research says no. We are less happy when our minds “stray away from what we’re doing” regardless of how disagreeable the activity is. 

Killingsworth says one reason is that our wandering minds often focus on the negative. However, “even when people’s minds wander off to pleasant things, they’re less happy than when they are fully present in the moment.” After he dug deeper into his data, he also concluded that mind-wandering is likely a cause of unhappiness, not the result of it. Hear his presentation from TEDxCambridge for more. The same video can be accessed through

How can we control our daydreaming? Killingsworth’s research tells us that our minds wander at least thirty percent of the time, but not how to change this.

This month, the ToDo Institute offers a distance learning program called, “Working with your Attention.” The existence of such a course suggests we may need help to change.

Meditation, which many doctors, business consultants, and military leaders recommend to improve emotional and physical health, and productivity, is one answer. In my experience, sitting quietly alone paying attention to my breathing is a laboratory to experience how much my mind is capable of wandering. Still, meditation is worth a try, These days, few people recommend that you lock your hips into the lotus position for hours on end.  You can sit up in a chair, just not too comfortable a chair.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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1 Response to The secret of happiness?

  1. Marc Brenman says:


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