The inability of the mind to concentrate on what one is experiencing in a particular moment has the effect of overshadowing the joy of a day, even when the subject of the wandering thoughts is as pleasant as can be.
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil Connors, a self-centered weatherman, embarks on a true adventure when he gets stuck in a time loop, forced to relive, dozens or maybe hundreds of times, the same day, no matter what tricks the protagonist tries to escape. That day is February 2, celebrated as Groundhog Day in the town of Punxsutawney, where Connors is delegated to broadcast the live weather report. Unable to return home due to a snowstorm, Connors resigns himself to spend a night there, only to find out that he invariably wakes up every morning in the same hotel room, in the same town, on the same calendar date, February 2. Since tomorrow never comes, the protagonist, who knows by heart the characters of the town, their lines, and all the incidents of a day, learns to respond to this time freeze by dedicating himself to the needs (already so familiar) of those around him.
Unlike the hero of the comedy, who lives a repetitive present down to its last fiber, in real life, we often miss the feast of the present, unwisely wandering either around the corners of the past or among the shadows of the future. Normally, politeness stops us from scrolling through our phones while a colleague tells us about their family problems. However, we can be just as detached from their narrative if our minds wander, for example, to unpaid bills or the announced visit of relatives—all while our facial expressions give the impression that our attention is focused on the person confiding in us.
While we might label such an attitude as insensitive, the reality is that our minds often escape beyond the boundaries of the present, regardless of the current activity. Sometimes we’re at work only physically, while our minds are already wandering through sunny vacation spots or inventorying possible dinner menus. Even meticulously planned and eagerly awaited vacation days aren’t exempt from the invasion of wandering thoughts that can tarnish the beauty and tranquility of the moment: we could be hundreds of kilometers away from the beach where we’re sunbathing, pondering the issue of a delayed promotion or the unfinished projects that ominously await us back home.
The distraction dilemma, a chronic issue
The moments when life seems to flow past us while, in the daily whirlwind of activities, we relinquish the role of an actor to that of an absent spectator are not as few as we might be tempted to believe. In fact, it is said that almost half of what we experience goes through our minds on autopilot, disconnecting us from the present moment and its more or less pleasant load.
“If you worry about what might be and wonder about what might have been, you will ignore what is,” goes a saying used by Carolyn Anderson, the author of an article published by the Huffington Post, to describe how she ruined the pleasure of a massage session. Instead of relaxing during the massage, Carolyn began to wonder if the therapist would pay enough attention to her perpetually tense shoulders without her needing to draw attention to them. When the therapist finally focused on her shoulders, the patient’s mind drifted to the next blog post she was going to write. Ultimately, the massage concluded on a disappointing note because the recipient hadn’t managed to connect her mind to the indulgence her body had enjoyed for a few minutes.
“It seems quite strange now to look at a busy street and realise that half the people aren’t really there,” says psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, the leader of a study that examined daily activities from a unique perspective: the focus or distraction of thoughts from the present moment.
The study, conducted by psychologists Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, revealed that people are distracted from their daily activities by thoughts unrelated to what they’re doing, and daily happiness is affected by this incongruence of thought with the current occupation.
Initially, 2,250 volunteers were asked to track their activities, feelings, and thoughts, being contacted through a web app for the iPhone at random intervals during waking hours. Later, the study expanded, garnering over 650,000 real-time reports from 15,000 diverse individuals in terms of education, income, occupation, or marital status, from 80 different countries. Whenever contacted, participants reported what they were doing at that moment, indicating how happy they felt (on a scale from 0 to 100) and whether they were focused on the activity or if their minds were wandering.
Even when engaged in enjoyable activities, the subjects were not shielded from the invasion of negative thoughts, as emphasised by Killingsworth. He points out that, while the mind wanders less in pleasant activities, once it does, it is equally susceptible to veering towards negative subjects. Additionally, as thoughts wander, the happiness level of the subjects decreases, though to varying degrees, directly proportional to the content of the thoughts, whether sad, happy, or neutral. Even when subjects were distracted from a less pleasant activity (like driving in peak traffic) by a pleasant thought, they were still less happy than when they were focused on the current activity.
While the human ability to reflect on past experiences and anticipate the future is special, “humans often use this ability in ways that are not productive and, moreover, can be harmful to our happiness,” Killingsworth says. In fact, “a wandering mind is not a happy mind,” as highlighted by the study’s authors, emphasising that this ability—to think about the non-present—comes with an emotional cost.
The human capacity for transcending the boundaries of the present is astonishing and plays a role in learning, planning, or enhancing creativity. However, the habit of letting the mind wander away from the current task comes with an uncomfortable price tag. The study’s results revealed that the happiness of the subjects depends less on the activity they are engaged in and more on the direction of wandering thoughts and how frequently the mind detaches from the present moment.
In the end, as Killingsworth says, if distracting one’s attention were a gambling game where the only option was to lose—whether $50, $20, or $1—no one would be interested in participating.
The flow and the faces of happiness
Happiness isn’t the sum of passive experiences in which we’re either uninvolved or only partially engaged. This is the conclusion drawn by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University and the architect of the concept of flow.
Growing up during World War II, a firsthand observer of how tragedy drains meaning from people’s lives, Csikszentmihalyi was interested in understanding what gives life significance, placing it on the path of fulfilment, if not happiness. In this quest to comprehend where in our daily experiences we truly feel happy, the psychologist studied many interviews with people from different walks of life, spanning various occupational registers, to understand what makes them content with the life and profession they have.
Common elements found in the accounts of otherwise very different individuals, from composers to CEOs and from poets to mountain climbers or monks, would help him define a new concept—the flow, defined as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
How do you know you’re living in flow? A primary condition is complete concentration on what you’re doing at that moment, total immersion in the activity, to the point where hunger or thirst are only faintly perceived, and the passage of time is no longer accurately assessed.
Living in flow equates to an inner sense of well-being and can be achieved in any type of activity when an above-average challenge demands the use of above-average personal skills. However, despite our intuition possibly suggesting otherwise, this state is easier to attain during work than during leisure. Not everyone has the ability to enjoy free moments, says Csikszentmihalyi, warning us that if we don’t learn to use this time, its mere passage doesn’t add anything substantial to the quality of our lives. The explanation for this apparent paradox (leisure time potentially delivering less happiness than time filled with activities) stems from the state of focus demanded by work, a vigilance that weakens during our moments of respite, especially when leisure time is spent in passive activities rather than hobbies or social interactions.
Fulfilment is primarily experienced through socialising, according to Csikszentmihalyi. The mood of a depressed person is hard to distinguish from that of normal individuals as long as the person is in the company of those with compatible goals and is willing to invest energy and attention in this interaction.
Research on the flow ultimately yielded similar results to the Harvard study: focusing on what we’re experiencing, rather than escaping from the reality of the present, measures our happiness.
Living each day as if it were the first
We all experience driving without retaining anything from the passing scenery, perhaps for minutes on end, reading a book and realising we have no idea what the last paragraphs were about, or listening to a lecture and realising we haven’t heard a single word because we were captured by our thoughts and carried away from where we were.
One reason our thoughts tend to wander so often is that we no longer pay attention to things we are already familiar with, says Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University. It’s as if life has lost its freshness, allowing us to switch attention to autopilot, confident that we’re not missing any incredible experience because we already know how things are. The remedy, according to Langer, is to develop the habit of detecting new things in any situation, no matter how familiar, thus keeping ourselves connected to the present moment. If we were to look at everything around us, from buildings to people and our own reactions, with a “beginner’s mind,” we might notice fresh details to resonate with in the most ordinary experiences.
Directing our attention to present experiences could help us not only savour moments but also alter our perception of time. It’s a well-known fact that as we age, we have the sensation that time is running faster and faster. When the brain is engaged, either through new experiences or innovative ways of doing ordinary things, time is “slowed down,” neurologist David Eagleman says.
Eagleman’s theory finds agreement with Steven Meyers, a psychology professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “Time can slip by because we are blindly going through the routine of our day,” Meyers says. Staying focused on what the present offers gives us the sensation of “slowing down” time, whereas distraction leaves us with the feeling that we’ve lost hours, days, and entire months—that life slipped through our fingers when we were looking the other way.
If we don’t take things around us for granted and set our minds to experience them daily with a fresh dose of wonder, we might discover that the world is constantly changing—and that, merely by our decision, we can bring to life a rejuvenating array of emotions, currently frozen by the apathy with which we view daily miracles.
A present infused with miracles
The fact that we’ve tuned our lives to an exhaustingly fast pace, draining both soul and body, robs us of the string of wonders enveloping each slice of the life gifted to us.
There’s a kernel of miracle in everything, says writer Brennan Manning, though we’ve developed a sickly immunity to it, such that the “grandeur of a world bathed in grace no longer sends shivers down our spine.” Pragmatic and comfortable, increasingly unimpressed by the spectacle of the external world, we watch it superficially, just to keep up with the rhythm of daily duties—the white spectacle of snow warns us to change our tires, the bundle of sunbeams streaming through the folds of a new day or a new season reminds us to flip the calendar page.
In this string of failures imposed by a busy life and a distracted mind, perhaps the most painful is that of our loved ones, whom we gaze upon without truly seeing in this whirlwind where gain sometimes wears the guise of loss.
Teacher and writer Rachel Macy Stafford recounts how her first child was a blessing packaged in a long series of interruptions and delays, incongruous in a busy schedule where the mind raced from one task to the next. The new mother tried to instil a brisker pace in the child who stopped to smell a rose, pet a puppy, or strike up a conversation with an elderly lady on the subway.
The frequent delays became hard to stomach for a mother who, by her own admission, was guided by a “tunnel vision”—centred on what’s next on the agenda, for whom anything not on the list fell into the category of a waste of time. Two words crept into the mother-daughter dialogue, sticking more and more frequently to the beginning and end of sentences: “Hurry up!” often followed by a firm “We don’t have time for this.”
The day she decided she would use words of admonishment less frequently than those expressing love arrived when her elder daughter reprimanded her younger sister for her slowness, employing an arsenal from which the mother easily recognized her own gestures and expressions.
Her decision, much easier to articulate than to uphold, thrust her into the midst of miracles she had detected too little until then. The newfound expressions on the youngest one’s face, the way her eyes crinkled in the light of a smile, the ease with which she approached people, and the delight with which she studied the details around her convinced her that her daughter was an observer—and that her own frenetic lifestyle needed to be infused with notes from a childlike outlook on life.
As long as we tread through life with half-closed eyes, absorbed by episodes already consumed or worrying about what the future holds, we isolate ourselves in a narrow and arid universe.