From grade school on it’s clear that being able to focus has its advantageous. Whether you’re learning your multiplication tables or closing a million-dollar deal, laser-like concentration helps you learn and produce more, but surprisingly it seems focus can also make you happier.
That’s according to new research from Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert that’s covered in a fascinating series of articles on the new science of focus from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, a must-check resource for anyone interested in positive psychology.
To test the relationship between focus and happiness, the scientists developed an iPhone app (check it out yourself here) that asks people about their thoughts, activities and mental state at various times throughout the day, generating a moment-by-moment picture of how our moods and minds fluctuate.
"The idea is that if we can watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day, and try to understand how things like what people are doing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and all the other factors that describe our experiences relate to those ups and downs in happiness, we might eventually be able to discover some of the major causes of human happiness," Killingsworth explains in the Greater Good write up.
After 650,000 real-time happiness reports, what did the researchers find? "People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing. For example, people don’t really like commuting to work very much; it’s one of their least enjoyable activities. Yet people are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is wandering off to something else. This pattern holds for every single activity we measured," Killingsworth reports.
And no, it’s not that miserable activities like sitting in traffic cause our minds to wander. The study results clearly show that it’s the other way around -- wandering minds make sitting in traffic even more miserable. The bottom line, Killingsworth, concludes is “mind-wandering less often could substantially improve the quality of our lives.”
To which you might respond, grand, but how do I actually accomplish that when I have a to-do list as long as my arm, a constantly pinging email inbox, a toddler and the other assorted worries of modern life constantly pulling at my attention? In a complementary article from Greater Good, neuroscientist Wendy Hasencamp offers a simple but powerful answer: meditate.
No, you don’t need to purchase saffron robes, take up residence in a cave or have any particular spiritual belief at all. You just need to work out your capacity for focus in much the way you work out your abs or biceps. Hasencamp describes the basics of focused attention (FA) meditation:
The practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.
If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath...
the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it.
Still not convinced you’re really the meditation type? Perhaps knowing how many business luminaries swear by the practice will cause you to reconsider. And if you are intrigued, both articles offer many more insights, including a neuroscientific explanation of why meditation works and the benefits you can expect. Killingsworth also has a TED talk laying out his ideas that you might want to check out.
How often does your mind wander?