Have you ever danced without thinking or caring how you looked, just one with the music? Maybe you’ve listened so intently to a friend share a painful memory that you didn’t notice the tears streaming down your cheeks. You may have watched a sunset reflected on a lake not thinking just feeling awe at the miracle of God’s creation. These are moments of mindfulness, when just being present transcends wandering thought and self-consciousness.
When Your Mind Focuses On What You’re Doing
Most of us experience mindfulness sometimes, often doing some activity we love. It’s just you and it — whether it’s gardening, listening to music, reading poetry out loud, savoring the first bite of a new dish, playing an instrument, singing, running, lifting weights, working at our jobs, volunteering — or something else. Anything we do can be done mindfully. Being fully engaged, without judgment, focused on one thing in the present moment — that’s what it means to do something mindfully.
When Your Mind Is Elsewhere
Of course, anything we can do mindfully we also can do mindlessly. Have you ever driven to work deep in thought and not remembered anything about the drive? Maybe you’ve opened a bag of chips when you’re upset and next thing you notice there’s an empty bag in your hand. Or you turn on Netflix with the plan to watch one episode of your favorite show. Three episodes later you realize it’s midnight and you have to go to work in the morning. You’re half listening to the Sunday sermon and half making a to-do-list for the rest of the day. When a friend asks about the sermon, you are clueless. These are examples of mindlessness, when you’re doing one thing but your mind is elsewhere. You’re on autopilot.
Mindfulness Makes Us Happier
Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert used a special “track your happiness” iPhone app to gather 250,000 data points from 15,000 people on what makes them happy. They found we spend more than half our time thinking about something other than what we are doing and most of this mindless daydreaming makes us unhappy.
In other words, it’s not what we do that makes us happy. It’s how we do it. The more our minds are focused on what we are doing in the here and now — mindful doing — the happier we are. The more our minds wander mindlessly the less happy we are.
Mindless Thoughts Tend To Be Negative
Our mindless thoughts make us unhappy largely because they are disproportionately negative. University of Texas researcher, Raj Raghunathan, had students record their thoughts for two weeks. Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the students’ mindless wandering thoughts were negative. Their negative mindless thoughts focused primarily on three areas: feelings of inferiority, feeling lack of control over their lives and feeling unloved and unappreciated. It’s not surprising that mindless thoughts make people unhappy.
This negativity bias has been hardwired in our brains since saber tooth tigers roamed the Earth threatening our ancestors. Noted neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, explains in Psychology Today “Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricks [us] into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).”
In response to this hardwired negativity bias, Hanson recommends “… be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walkaround with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive …. Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm,” whether a family member, a friend, coworker or politician.
Reason for Hope
Hanson shares reason for hope as well. By cultivating mindfulness, we can reprogram the wiring in our brain to notice and keep in mind the positives in our lives in proportion to the negatives. He explains this process in Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
Mindfulness Leads To A More Fulfilling Life
Jon Kabat-Zinn knows something about mindfulness and living a fulfilling life. In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, he writes, “Practice sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, above all, your presence. Share it with yourself, with your family, with the world.” All of these things require us to be mindfully present in the moment, intentional, nonjudgmental, without expectation of reward. And that’s what make us happy. That’s what fulfills us and gives meaning to life.
So it’s up to each of us to decide. In this moment, will I be mindfully present or mindlessly on autopilot? It’s not that we’ll ever be perfect or that mindfulness will ever become effortless. But over time, it will get easier as the brain reprograms itself.
Mindfulness is a practice. The nature of the practice is to notice when we go on autopilot and bring our attention back to the here and now, to notice our negative bias and bring our attention back to the moment where we can make choices, interact with friends and family and live our life fully.