The Not Entirely Surprising Truth About What Makes Us Happy

I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at 10:55pm on Monday.

What do you suppose was the very first thing I did upon deplaning?

You guessed it…log onto the airport wifi network to see what emails I had missed.

I hadn’t missed much, as it turns out, but when I arrived at my lodging, I couldn’t connect to wifi.

All told, I ended up being internet-less for about two days.

I don’t recall ever been internet-deprived for that long, and as brief as my internet blackout was, it was an interesting experience for someone as internet-addicted internet-enthused as I am, and has me contemplating some changes.

What mind-bending, life-altering, earth-shattering realizations did I have?

Peace and quiet

I discovered that life without internet is quiet. Peaceful. More relaxed.

Because I couldn’t get the latest tweets, blog posts, and news stories 24/7, I found myself being less concerned about what I might be missing elsewhere in the world and on the Internet.

I felt more present. More in the moment. More open and responsive to my wife and kids.

It was really nice.

Of course, when I finally got connected to the internet and checked my messages, I was anxious to see what I had missed, and concerned I may have missed something urgent.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Sure there were lots of emails that I could have responded to, but not a single email absolutely necessitated a response within the next 24-48 hours. Honestly, I could have deleted all of the emails, and everything would have been just fine. Apparently the world can survive just fine without me trying to control the universe from my phone (rats!).

Where are you now?

A 2010 study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard found that about half the time (46.9% to be exact), our minds are wandering to the future, the past, or something other than what we are doing.

Put another way, when you go to the mall, about half the people walking around you aren’t actually there, but in some other imaginary world in their head.

Interestingly, the researchers found that we are less happy when our minds are wandering – even when we are doing something we don’t necessarily enjoy. Or stated another way, happiness is to be found in being present, in the moment, really attending to what is happening right now, whether it’s washing dishes, folding laundry, or cooking lasagna.

Killingsworth and Gilbert also found that thinking about pleasant topics doesn’t make us happier than focusing on our current activity, while thinking about neutral or unpleasant things makes us markedly unhappier than being present. And most of us spend a lot of time thinking about neutral/unpleasant things. As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

All in all, the study suggests that happiness is less about what we are doing, and more about the degree to which we are fully present, whatever the activity we are engaged in might be.

Surprising? Not entirely, right?

Ooh…new msg, lol!

The thing with having a smartphone, is that our focus is constantly being shifted away from our current activity, and in the back of our minds, we are constantly wondering what we might be missing in the world around us.

What did my friends think of my Facebook post? Did so-and-so get my email? Why aren’t they responding? Did the Blazers win their game last night? Are there any good deals on Woot! today?

I wouldn’t say that my iPhone makes me unhappy per se (and there’s no chance I’m giving it up), but I really did enjoy the feeling of being more at peace and more present, even if it was just for a couple days.

Take action

I’ve had a policy of checking my email once per day on my computer, but have totally been cheating by sneaking a peek at email on my phone.

I’m curious to see what will happen if I disable automatic email checking on my phone, and instead check manually every 12 hours – say, at 9am and 9pm (here’s how for iOS and Android). I figure I’ll track how many urgent emails I get per 12 hour period, and if all goes well, perhaps scale back to checking just once per 24 hours.

Have you ever experimented with going on a self-imposed internet “fast”? Share your reactions (or tips) below.

If you decide to join me on this experiment, I’d be curious to see (a) if you notice a difference in how present you feel (and whether you feel happier), and (b) how many truly urgent emails you actually miss by scaling back on your email (tip: you may need to put a message in your signature line so that people who are accustomed to emailing you with truly time-critical emergencies learn to use the phone instead).

In the meantime, have you ever wondered what would happen if you could fast forward through the traffic jams, boring meetings, and otherwise mundane parts of life? It might not be as great as it sounds. This could be a good week to check out the movie Click if you haven’t already seen it (I really liked it, and my teenage cousin recommended it, so it’s kid and parent-approved).

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

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12 Responses

  1. Peace and quiet – it is very nice, once you get over the anxiety of being “out of touch”. We try to have a family digital detox once a year when we go on holiday. It’s not always successful! I also turn my phone to silent when practicing – surely we can go a couple of hours without being contactable?

  2. Hi Noa,

    I very much like your post. It’s very true how we miss the happiness that’s here when we go to some imaginary future or past – usually trying to fix the past or control what ‘might’ (but usually doesn’t) happen in the future.
    I had an interesting experience with de-tech’ing in 2009/10. I went to South Africa safari guiding for 12 months and in many of the bush camps there was no phone or email contact and so I would get to send/receive texts may be once a week and check emails once a month. No TV/radio/newspapers either, so no news about what was happening anywhere else in the world. It was heaven. At one stage we even did an experiment of putting all out watches, phones or other gadgets with a clock on them in a large box so that we were living by natural rhythms. Ok so there is probably no better place in the world to de-tech and just live in the moment. Each morning we would go out and read the local bush newspaper…ie look at the tracks and signs around camp to see what animals had been through camp during the hours that we slept. And another thing you soon come to appreciate…in the bush there is no Health & Safety madness, you just live by good old common sense.

    Back in the ‘normal’ world the nearest I get to this being in the moment living on a regular basis is the time I spend locked away in the practice room. When I pick up the violin that is where my attention is focused. It has to be. If it is anywhere else I might as well not be practising. It has to be 100% to be effective. It’s a meditation in effect. It brings you into the moment and totally attending to what you are doing. Maybe that is why I enjoy it so much, hard work as it can be at times!

  3. I used to work an IT job where I felt like I always had to be plugged in to the office to keep up with my job. I was always taking my laptop and work phone on family vacations or on weekend trips to visit my parents. I have since changed professions, and when I think back on that time in my life…..anything other than work seems to be a big blur because I missed out on so much living and human interaction trying to build a career that eventually burned me out. That’s why it is so important to me to be present in my family’s and friends’ lives now. I’ve never felt so complete as a person and truly happy!!! I’m just glad that I learned this life lesson sooner rather than later.

  4. This is so great! I’ve been reading Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week, and he certainly advocates for this. It definitely relates to my own latest blog post too; it’s hard to be intentional and accomplish things when you’re constantly being distracted by notifications and ringing phones.
    I’ve tried to implement this myself-have definitely turned off auto-sync on my email-but haven’t quite worked up the courage to do a full media fast just yet. Maybe I’ll make that my goal for this week. 24 hours won’t be the end of the world… right…?

  5. I just got back from a week long vacation in Florida; 3 of those days were in the Keys. While I did have my IPhone with me, most of the time (b/c of my shitty AT&T service) I had hardly any connection and so I left it in “airplane mode” to preserve battery life and have some peace and quiet: no texts and no phone calls. I left it in the hotel room a lot too. It was quite nice. I really agree with your post about being more in the moment when we have less distractions. Sometimes I regret having an IPhone- not to mention Facebook- as they seem to be more of waste of time for me than anything and, to some extent, a source of anxiety. I view them now more as “necessary evils” (FB especially because it is such a widely used platform). It is (and should be a necessity) to be completely “unplugged” every now and then. You can enjoy yourself more.

  6. This week’s post is very interesting. As an observant Jew I have this break from internet and for that matter everything electronic every week. From sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday all electronics are forbidden to me by Jewish law. The peace and freedom from daily worries is amazing. But it is not all wonderful. The most difficult thing is not playing my cello. And in the summer sunset is pretty late on Saturday night. Sunday morning’s practice is so sweet.

  7. I haven’t done a self-imposed internet fast, but I do try to cull email checking because I think it’s the one thing that get’s the most out of control.

    I try what Tim Ferris does and that’s to only check email at 11am and 4pm. (Though I have to alter this value because of work.

  8. Hi Noa–I’m Brian Lee’s wife, nice to find you here on the blogosphere! What a fabulous resource you have created here for musicians; we have three boys who all play instruments and I will definitely be using your good advice here to help them practice more efficiently and effectively. Look forward to reading future posts!

  9. Funny that you only realize that now… I thought it was obvious that life without internet is reacher… One reads more (books…!!!), talks more (in 3D;)), thinks more, does more. And yet we only enjoy that when we’re forced to give up on the net… Funny. I personally LOVE Internet “fasts”. 🙂

  10. I deleted my facebook account because I couldn’t stop checking it. I also noticed that the longer it was around, the more my self esteem seemed to be linked to it. I LOVE not having it. If they’re really friends, they can contact you outside facebook, it’s a great way to weed out who should/should not get your attention.

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