Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Happiness and Mindfulness

Seems to me that there is a lot of talk these days about happiness. Whether we're happy or whether we would be happier if we only emphasized the "right" things in our life instead of the "wrong" things. Whether we're happier today than we were in yesteryear. I think one reason* there is so much talk about happiness is the definition different for everyone. Also, happiness is a complex concept and one that's hard to define and measure. But despite these complexities, there are people out there who are trying to understand and define happiness in a scientific way.
One of these people is Matt Killingsworth. He developed a happiness app and is collecting data about people's moods and correlating them with what they are doing. From his various findings, there is one thing that is consistent from the study. People are happier when they are fully engaged in what they are doing instead of letting their mind wander. That was true even if they didn't like what they were doing at the time. Apparently the reason for this is when our mind wanders, it usually goes to negative places and focuses on things we are worried about. And when we're worried, we're usually not happy.

Unfortunately, I'm normal in this way. After learning about Killingsworth's research, I noticed that while I was mowing, I was spending a fair amount of time with my mind wandering to worrisome thoughts. The same thing happened later while I was taking a walk. I knew I was the worrying kind, but I didn't realize how much idle worrying I actually do.

image source
So I wondered if there was anything I could do about this. I concluded that I am going to try to practice more mindfulness. I am going to try to be fully present in whatever I am doing and not have my body busy doing something while my mind wanders off to worry. When I'm mowing, I am going to listen to the sound of the mower and notice the plants I am cutting. When I'm walking, I'm going to notice how long my stride is and how my arms are swinging. And with enough practice, maybe I won't be the typical person anymore. My thoughts will stay in the present instead of in the future worrying. And just maybe, I will finally understand what the Buddist monks have known for a very long time--mindfulness is an important key to happiness.

(Okay, to be truthfully honest, I've gone through this phase before with only minor success. It takes a lot of work to retrain a lifetime of rapid fire, worrisome thoughts. But I'm gonna give it a try.)

*I think another reason there is so much talk about happiness, is that we are dong very well as a whole. We have most of our basic needs met, so we have the luxury to think about things such as whether or not we are happy.


  1. Complex topic. Occupational Therapy is based on the concept of "purposeful activity"--that we as humans need to be engaged in activities which are meaningful for us and we gain a sense of self-worth through that. Don't know if that's what you mean by "happiness", but I think that feeling like we are engaged in what we are doing much of the time and that it has a deeper sense of meaning (I can be engaged in shopping for new shoes, but it's not exactly a "deep meaning" kind of experience ...) is part of feeling content with one's life. Of course, then you move on to the subject of the difference between happiness and joy ... wow, we could go a lot of ways with this discussion.

    1. This is a complex topic. While I was writing this post, I went off in several different tangents, but deleted them and tried to focus on one thing. An adequate discussion is well beyond the length of my simple posts. It could fill volumes. However, I may do another one or two in the future.

      Also, it's interesting to hear about the concept of OT. I only know about it in a very practical way.

  2. I'm a worrier too. I find that practicing yoga really helps me to stay in the now. I've also been working on it from the other direction too - the theory being that worrying and anxiety are really things I do to distract myself from other deeper emotions that I really, REALLY don't want to feel.

    Since my mother's passing last fall, those feelings have been bubbling to the surface... probably for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it wasn't "safe" to let myself go there while she was still living. Anyhow, I'm finding that the further I allow myself to go in exploring that long pent-up stuff, the less need I have to distract myself from it all with the constant worrying.

    My other thought comes from the world of linguistics. I've studied Spanish for many years, and I find it interesting that when they ask or express how someone is doing, they seldom use the word "feliz" meaning "happy". They are much more likely to use the word "contento/contenta" meaning "content." It's a subtle, but meaningful distinction, I think. It seems like our culture often portrays the image that everyone should be wildly happy all the time. But maybe a better goal would be peaceful contentedness.

    1. Ha! I just read Kris' comment above and linguistic theory aside, it seems we had the same thought about contentedness! :-)

    2. Your theories about why you worry are interesting. However it's all connected, I'm glad that you are starting to process some of your deeper emotions. That's important thing that we all need to do.

      I think the basic reason I'm a worrier is that that's the way my brain chemistry works. I've worked on controlling it and have had some success, but as you read in this post, I've got more work to do.

      On the plus side, worriers are often good planners because we can anticipate everything that may happen.

  3. My husband always tells me "people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Now having said that kind of tongue in cheek since we are talking about mindfulness...lol...I think there is some truth in his little saying in that what we let our minds focus on has a very powerful effect on our lives. I think we all struggle some with this and I know I go through spells just like anyone else. However, I have learned that for me I'm happier being proactive than reactive....so while I do some "worrying" I do try to channel it into productive outlets.

    1. You make two very important points--what we let our minds focus on has a very powerful effect on our lives and it is better to be proactive than reactive. Those are both things that I knew, but you state them very well. I'm going to try to remember your words.

  4. This is a very complex post. I imagine without worry we would never learn caution or limits. I think the key is understand how needless most worry is. I am not saying that I never worry, I think worry is part of the human condition, but I learned some valuable worry tips from Grandmother years ago. Some of these are actual quotes and some are just paraphrases, but they are all things she told me over the years.
    1. Don't invent worry. There are enough bothersome things in life that require thought so save all your worry for something important.
    2. When you figure out how worry will solve a problem share it with me and we will bottle it, sell it and both make a fortune.
    3. Sometimes something will happen and you just have to endure it.
    4. There is always something good, somewhere. Look for it
    5. Don't worry unless you have a working plan to make things better. (This is the same Grandmother who decided she no longer wanted to be in the nursing home so she wheeled herself to the UPS truck, grabbed the bumper and told the delivery man to not worry about her. He could just go about his rounds and she would let go when he drove by her street.)
    6. Your job is to enjoy this life and worry blocks it. Choose!

    She lived to be 102 so I guess she had a lot right. Her advice to me was well received. It saves me a lot of angst and has impacted how I view life. If I have to choose between worry and joy, I will the laughing side. It's easier and doesn't keep me awake at night.

  5. All very good words of wisdom. However, nothing tops the picture of your grandmother holding onto the UPS bumper. I've been having a hard day and that gave me a smile. Thanks.


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