This Habit May Separate Happy & Unhappy People

Take a minute to consider these four scenarios. Which do you think would make you happiest?

  1. Ironing a shirt and thinking about ironing the shirt.
  2. Ironing a shirt and thinking about a sunny getaway.
  3. Visiting the Louvre, standing before a Monet, and letting yourself be drawn in by its beauty.
  4. Visiting the Louvre, standing before a Monet, and trying to figure out what restaurant to try for dinner.

You might be surprised to learn, research backs numbers one and three.

Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert have uncovered compelling evidence that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. We’re happiest when thought and action are aligned, even if they’re aligned to iron a shirt.

“Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain — and your self.”


Their research team developed a smartphone app to facilitate “experience sampling.” Meaning, at random times throughout the day, a participant’s smartphone would chime and present him with a brief questionnaire that asked how happy he was, what he was doing, and whether he was thinking about what he was doing.

Published in Science, September 29, 2010, the study explains:

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found
(i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and
(ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

What other insights can we glean from this research?

1. Happiness is predictable.

Mental presence (matching thought to action) is a reliable predictor of happiness. So, we can predict that someone may be happier at home, scrubbing out a dirty pot, than sunning themselves on the deck of a luxury cruise ship and wishing they were seeing the northern lights.

Paul Deger’s article “Predicting Happiness (or at Least the Cessation of Suffering)” posits that “we are capable of catching the causality that drives our suffering or happiness.”

Putting aside the science, let’s imagine some real-life situations and see if we draw similar conclusions.

Deger’s example:

You know how replaying an argument over and over in your mind can cause you to clench your teeth, and if you keep it up, you develop a headache? There are a few ways that this situation could play out:

via MindBodyGreen


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