New research is shedding light on the pursuit of happiness—and most of us have been looking in all the wrong places. It turns out, happiness is not found in external things at all, but is a power we hold within ourselves. Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth created an app in an attempt to answer the question “what makes us happy?” once and for all, and the results have been an eye-opener. According to Mr Killingworth’s data, we’re happiest when we are mindful of the moment, and we’re least happy when the mind is wandering.
This study took a large sampling of 15,000 individuals. The sampling was diverse—it included people across the socio-economic stratosphere, of varying levels of education, age, occupation, incomes, marital status and across 80 countries.
The premise was simple: throughout the day, at random times, participants were contacted through their phones and asked to rate their current happiness level, what activity they were involved in when the call came, and whether or not their mind was wandering from the activity.
As it turned out, what made people happy had far less to do with what they were doing and significantly more to do with whether their attention was fully present in the moment.
People who focused on their present moment experience (in other words, people who were being ‘mindful’) were significantly happier than people whose minds wandered away from the moment.
You might assume that people who let their minds wander to happy thoughts would have been happy right? — and it is true that people whose minds wandered to happy thoughts were slightly better off than those whose minds wandered to worries or regrets. But people letting their minds wander to pleasant things were still not as happy as people who kept their minds in the moment.
Even if the activity at hand was deemed unpleasant, people were still happier when they engaged their attention fully in the now.
There is plenty of previous research that supports Killingsworth’s findings. We know, for instance, that money doesn’t make us happy. Studies have shown that as long as basic needs, such as food and shelter are met, additional wealth and material goods have little bearing on happiness (1).
Dr Mihaly Chentmihalyi, leading authority on positive psychology, studied happiness extensively in the 1960s and came up with the same results as Killingsworth. He spoke of the peak state of human beings being a state he called ‘flow’.
According to Killingsworth, the average person’s mind is wandering around 47% of our day—and when the mind wanders we don’t feel happy. Spending so much time with the mind wandering makes us vulnerable to depression, stress, anxiety and other negative emotions.
As many people continue to seek external gratification as a source of happiness, their wandering minds are overlooked as the source of their discontent.
This great study by Killingsworth supports the growing body of research on the powerful effects of mindfulness. The data shows us what wisdom traditions have long taught – that the keys to happiness – to true well-being and fulfilment – depend not on the external circumstances of our lives, but on the state of our minds and the quality of our consciousness.
(3) Baer, R.A., Smith, G.T., Hopkins, J.K., Kreitemeyer, J. and Toney, L. (2006), ‘Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness, Assessment, 13, pp. 27-45.
Post adapted from mrsmindfulness.com