Harvard Psychologists Tell Us How We’re Killing Our Happiness

Data finally proves the secret to happiness

Shivendra Misra
Jul 3 · 5 min read

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” — Pascal

When I first heard this quote, it was an eye-opener. What if everyone had the ability to sit with themselves for hours — free from any distractions that our surroundings have to offer?

My answer was simple — they’ll understand everything they chase and worry about is meaningless. And they’ll get a chance to introspect their follies.

While that’s all fine and dandy, the reality is more practical. I’ll explain.

People can actually die as a direct result of our inability to focus.

The best example? Car accidents. More than 1 in every 4 car accidents is caused by cellphones. To simplify, people are willing to risk their lives and those of others because they can’t sit idle for a few minutes. The urge to pull out our phones at the slightest hint of boredom is killing people.

Often, we attribute these causalities to the high-tech world we live in — Phones, push notifications, IM, email, and many others. It’s the only reason that we’re distracted today.

Really though? Absolutely not.

The truth is, if it were not phones, it would’ve been something else. Chatting with the driver, being lost in your own thoughts, reading the newspaper, and 100 other things that can distract us.

Let’s go back 45 years. We didn’t have smartphones, and we didn’t have personal computers. Now think “What can I do to distract myself?”

Here are a few answers:

Newspapers, cigarettes, television, radio, and many more. You get the point.

We’re not distracted due to our surroundings. Even if you sit alone in a dark, empty room, you’ll be distracted. The outward stimuli only amplify the problem — but the problem exists regardless of these externalities.

In other words, we’re distracted because we want to be distracted.


A Wandering Mind is An Unhappy Mind

The famous study by Daniel Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth, tells us all we need to know.

They took 2,250 people for the experiment and pinged them at random times during the day. The notification time was different for each participant as per their schedule.

Each notification asked them several questions about their mood, happiness, environment, and the task at hand. The results were enlightening. But most of all, they reveal one important insight.

The nature of the work had a negligible impact on whether their mind wandered. Every activity (apart from making love) had a high rate of mind-wandering.

“There is never a time when new distraction will not show up; we sow them, so several will grow from the same seed.” — Seneca

We can surely attest to the results with our personal experience. The mind always wanders, regardless of what we’re doing.

It’s the brain’s default mode network or the monkey mind. Always swinging from branch to branch without sitting still.

This not only affects the work we do but also our happiness. Let’s see how mind-wandering and happiness are connected.


Why Bother Though?

Because we’re all after happiness. We do things because we want to feel happy. Our possessions, relationships, and jobs are decided on this anchor — because they’ll give us happiness. The problem is, they don’t.

Yes having more money is better than having no money. Having a good education is better than being a dropout (if all other factors remain constant).

But does it really make a huge difference to our happiness levels? No.

Thank god a few researchers stepped up to study this phenomenon. Because philosophers and thinkers have been talking about this for ages and no one listens. I hope scientific evidence would finally help spread this idea.

Since scientific studies weren’t able to identify the key drivers of happiness, Matt Killingsworth had an interesting insight.

He thought, if all the other things can’t determine our happiness, then it must depend on what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

That’s when it clicked. As he collected data about happiness levels of participants at different moments throughout the day, he found this:

Source (Happiness on the vertical axis)

No matter what people were doing, they were significantly happier if they were focused on the present. Even if they’re running errands, commuting, or doing laundry.

Even though we hate commute and running errands, we still don’t enjoy mind-wandering. Because when the mind wanders, we often think of unpleasant events. Stresses, worries, anxieties, and fear rule our minds.

This makes perfect sense. In the eternal Now, there are no worries, no tensions, and no anxieties. These are only caused when we ruminate on the past or worry about the future.

All that you seek exists Now. You just have to be here to find it.


Start Today

This opens the door to new possibilities. It did for me.

Now we know our happiness is in our control. It’s about our state of being rather than doing. All we have to do is make our minds wander less and be here now.

Easier said than done though. But there are a lot of mindfulness practices that can help you with it. Meditation is the biggest one.

There’s one thing I’ll say — start today. Start small. Start with 2 minutes. Start now! Download a guided meditation app on your phone — Headspace, Calm, Waking Up by Sam Harris, anything would do. Or just find the audio on YouTube.

The simple habit will go a long way — since it’s the only path to happiness.


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Shivendra Misra

Written by

Get my new book, Bend Reality: Timeless Tools to Shift the Illusion of Reality, Reinvent Yourself and Master Life: bit.ly/30shivam

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 119,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Shivendra Misra

Written by

Get my new book, Bend Reality: Timeless Tools to Shift the Illusion of Reality, Reinvent Yourself and Master Life: bit.ly/30shivam

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 119,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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