Happiness? There’s An App for That!

It may be that one of the keys to happiness is simple – keep your mind focused in the present. Or to put it another way, avoid mind-wandering.

UC San Francisco professor Matt Killingsworth believes that the contents of moment to moment experiences have a big influence on our happiness. To prove it, he developed an app that collects data about what makes us happy. People who sign up for the app receive text messages that ask questions such as: how do you feel right now; what are you doing; and are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing. Over 15,000 users representing 80 countries, 86 occupations and a wide range of ages, income, marital status and education have produced over 700,000 real-time data reports.

Here’s what the data reveals about what makes us happy. When we are focused in the present, we are happier than when our minds wander, including “neutral”, “pleasant” and “unpleasant” mind wandering. This is true for every activity even the least enjoyable such as commuting!

So why is mind wandering so impactful? First, on average we engage in mind-wandering 30% of the time! And much of our mind-wandering focuses on negative feelings – worries, anxieties and regrets. The question that needs to be answered is does mind wandering precede unhappiness or does unhappiness lead to mind wandering? Professor Killingsworth found a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and feeling unhappy a short time later and no relationship between feeling unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later. His conclusion is that mind-wandering is a cause of unhappiness.

Since I came across Professor Killingsworth’s research, I’m more aware of my state of mind. For example, when I am out getting some exercise, I can catch when my thoughts start drifting. Most thoughts are “neutral” (such as thinking about a podcast that I’m working on) but some are “unpleasant”. I ‘tell” myself to snap back to the present. When I do, I smile while taking in the beauty of my natural surroundings. Then I think about how I felt in each state – neutral, unpleasant and present. I definitely feel happiest when I am in the present.

Even though I think that Professor Killingsworth’s findings about being present in the moment and avoiding mind-wandering seem like common sense, it is reassuring to have that common sense backed up with data. And it makes me more determined to live in the present, enjoy what I am doing and to control mind-wandering, especially the negative, unpleasant version.

If you are interested in signing up for the app, go to Trackyourhappiness.org. By the way, you not only contribute to the overall research project but over time you find out what factors affect your own happiness.

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