This Habit May Separate Happy & Unhappy People

Written by Carol Preibis

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:

  • You fall into auto-pilot mode.

"On auto-pilot, we miss the conditions and only recognize the negative outcome breaking through to awareness, making us feel as though we have little control of our current state." This is a dead-end path. You'll suffer the consequences.

  • You employ mindfulness to "invite an expanded awareness, to catch the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) initial conditions that drive us to suffering or happiness.

Now you can notice the jaw tense and the replay in your mind. This is the path that offers you a choice. "I can choose the old and familiar (such as jaw tensing) that drives suffering. Or I can "run the experiment" and practice a new choice (shift focus to breathing) and see if happiness may be found in this moment, after all

2. It's possible to improve your life by rewiring your brain.

Psychologist Rick Hanson said, "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."

Paul Deger's article focused on a single aspect of mindfulness — the use of awareness to bring about the cessation of suffering — specifically suffering originating from rumination.

But mindfulness doesn't stop there. Research shows that contemplative practices, such as mindfulness meditation, can literally change the brain.

The scientific explanation for this "rewiring of the brain" is called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”

Our brain changes with experience, and we get good at what we practice. The neural networks that you exercise become stronger, and eventually the thought patterns and mental habits that are being represented by those neural networks get stronger and become effortless and automatic. The most powerful way to change your brain is not actually medication, it’s behavior, because that’s what it’s designed to change in relation to — not just any behavior, specifically mental behavior or mental habit. William James called habit “the basic structure of mental life.”

Once you make the decision to change your thought patterns, there's a variety of techniques you can use, depending on your needs and lifestyle. Here are a few resources to explore as you embark on this new, happier, more focused chapter of your life. Good luck!

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