Sorry, daydreamers. Wandering thoughts, even if pleasant, won't bring on the bliss. Photo: Simon James/Creative Commons
There's a saying in the Buddhist tradition that I adore that goes, "If you can't sit with reality, it will sit with you." This isn't some metaphysical, new-agey speak. If you think about it, it's common sense, right? Science is proving so, too.
TIME's Health section reports on new research issued in Science, that links wandering thoughts -- even warm and fuzzy daydreaming -- to low moods. (Fun, quirky fact: an iPhone app helped conduct the study!)Yes, the iPhone I've continued to resist is still cranking out some very green app offerings like the one created by authors of the study, Harvard doctoral student Matthew Killingsworth and psychology professor Daniel Gilbert. It's called TrackYourHappiness.org and was set up to contact study participants at random times of day to check in on their mental state and mood.
Three simple questions were asked:
1. "How are you feeling right now?"
2. "What are you doing right now?"
3. "Are you currently thinking about something other than what you're currently doing?"
Analyzing the responses of 2,250 participants around the world, the following was noted:
Regardless with what task was at hand, folks reported to letting their mind wander 46.9% (nearly half!) of the time. Sex seemed to be the only activity where focus came easier. Surprise! (Not really.)
Focus for Clarity, Contentment, Cool
The real surprise? When the tasks at hand (think: tedious work or chores) weren't enjoyable, it's not like pleasant and positive daydreaming (like vacations or honeymoon planning) helped. In fact, the study found that happiness decreased.
This reminded me, "If I can't sit with reality, oh yes, it will sit with me." I can't count the number of times I've daydreamed about white sand beaches during a Northeast winter. And no, I don't recall it making me any happier. Quite the opposite.
It seems to me that for us happiness seekers, simply doing the task at hand -- as fully present and concentrated in the moment -- is our best option. Does this mean we'll get immediate pay-off feeling happier in the end? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least though, we might feel a bit more content.
And as the Times reports, a regular meditation practice can help strengthen and increase our concentrative abilities which could help lend to greater, happy pay-off.
Our Happiness, Re-Gifted
When we learn to become authentically happy and/or content ourselves, even in the midst of reality (even if reality bites), we're often in a better space to turn that happiness outward to others -- family, friends, our community and then maybe our planet at large. Lofty, yes, but what's the alternative? Similarly, can we fight for climate change or another environmental cause without treating each other (family, friends, colleagues) with respect, kindness or even beyond--love? Perhaps, but I don't think we'll get very far.
Where Science & Meditation Merge
Meditation isn't strictly a Buddhist method-- it's simply a mental training. Anytime you are fully concentrated at a task at hand, is a form of meditation. It can be completely secular or under the wings of your own tradition.
As a yoga instructor studying Buddhist thought, these are just my own musings on scientific findings that are basically re-enforcing what the ancient tradition that deeply integrates the method of meditation have been saying all along. Much like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I am fascinated by the many points where science and Buddhism intersect and I am always psyched when science points to meditation as a truly practical tool and not some inaccessible new-age non-sense.
It's here, within reach and can help make us happy.