Every part of you was engrossed in what you were experiencing— your mind and your body worked with a fluid synchronicity, focused only on what you were doing now. Every part of your being was focused in the moment.
There were no overwhelming emotions or complicated thoughts— just a sense of peace as you flowed through the task gracefully as though it were a well-rehearsed dance.
You might have felt this occasionally when doing something you truly love or even during chores at home. Many people know this feeling during athletic activity like yoga, dance, rock-climbing or jogging.
Creative people often get into this state when painting, writing or sculpting. “Ecstatic” is a word religious people might use when they’re in a similar state, caught up in prayer, meditation or ritual. This state of mind is sought by athletes, who refer to it as being in “the zone”.
The name I borrowed from Buddhism to describe this state of being is ‘mindfulness’ and research suggests that learning to enter this state of mind is the key to your happiness.
Unhappy People Have Wandering Minds
Think back on a time when you were very unhappy. You probably attribute it to some specific situation, such as a problem or issue you were dealing with, or perhaps you didn’t have things you thought you wanted or needed. You probably mentally assigned the cause of your unhappiness to these external factors.
We often think it’s our ‘problems’ – our troublesome life circumstances that make us unhappy—and that if our circumstances would just change to something more desirable, then happiness would be easy. Turns out, though, it’s not our circumstances that make us happy or unhappy.
A recent Harvard study reveals that stray thoughts and wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness (1). During the study it was discovered that those with constantly wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on task.
This study seems to confirm what Buddhists, sages and saints have long taught – That an unruly mind creates unhappiness and dysfunction and that the keys to happiness lay in mastering the mind not in changing external factors in our lives.
The most startling part of the discovery, however, is that unhappiness doesn’t just come from the mind wandering to unpleasant things. The study shows people with minds that wander to neutral or even pleasant thoughts are still less happy than if the mind did not wander at all (2).
During the study people were asked to focus on a given activity. It was found that even if the activity was some hum-drum chore, participants were happier if their minds were fully there, focused in the moment. The conclusion is that when the mind wanders repeatedly (and for many of us they wander all day every day) it drastically reduces our overall happiness and wellbeing (3).
Happiness is Living in the Moment
This recent Harvard study only serves to confirm the results of research that has been conducted on meditation and mindfulness for over 40 years.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s leading researchers in positive psychology, refers to this state of mind as “flow” Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as being totally absorbed, or immersed in the activity in which you’re engaged. It doesn’t matter what the particular task is— what matters is that you are fully present when you’re doing it.
Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one pointed attention. This focus—this mindfulness of being in the moment—is when true happiness spontaneously arises (4).
When you are mindful of your activity, you’re not preoccupied with regrets or worries and you’re not planning or wanting for anything. You’re not lending power to thinking processes and so they do not dominate your awareness.
Flow allows you to truly and deeply live your life as it unfolds in the here and now. Perhaps this is why the latest research continues to confirm that mindfulness increases happiness— to be mindful is to truly experience life and make the most out of every moment.
I’m Too ….. To Be Happy
Some people have a hard time believing that the causes of true happiness are so simple. “I’m too poor,” “I’ve got too many worries,” and “life has not been good to me” are common complaints. The mind will often try to tell stories about all the other ‘things’ you need before you can allow yourself to be happy. However, your life circumstances may have a lot less to do with your happiness than you previously assumed.
The Association for Psychological Science notes that researchers found people of a high socio-economic status are no more likely to be happy than people of a lower socio-economic status (5).
Happiness is not something that comes from where you live, what you can afford or a better career or relationship. All evidence supports the fact that happiness is found from cultivating a healthy and balanced mental environment through practicing mindfulness, or in the words of Csikszentmihalyi – by cultivating your ability to be in the flow state.
There is an old saying: “Happiness is a state of mind.” As it turns out, it’s true and that state of mind has a name: Mindfulness.
Please feel free to share your own wisdom or ask any questions in the comments section below. I’m happy to help. Stay in touch!
ps. Still dubious about whether mindfulness is really the source of true happiness? Check out this awesome TED talk video