The Not Entirely Surprising Truth About What Makes Us Happy
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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.
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).
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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