Be Here Now to Keep the Doctor Away
Back in 1971, Ram Das (aka Dr. Richard Alpert, former Harvard professor) shook the establishment by publishing Be Here Now, a work dedicated to alternative consciousness.1 From a certain perspective, it seems ridiculous that people needed a book to tell them that they should be present in the moment, but the sad fact is that we humans tend to mentally be anywhere but “here now.” That’s why Be Here Now still sells well, as does the similarly named bestseller by Eckert Tolle, The Power of Now. Tolle’s book was published in 1997, the same year a researcher named Matt Killingsworth decided to study the ”be here now” effect on mental health, and more specifically, on happiness.2
To measure how wandering minds impact individuals, Killingsworth developed a unique app for I-Phones that dinged periodically throughout the day to ask participants a series of questions: What are you doing right now? How are you feeling on a scale of 1 to 100? Are you thinking about something other than what you’re doing? And what were you thinking about a moment ago? He enrolled over 15,000 participants aged 18 to 88 in 83 countries, and collected over 250,000 responses from these participants. When he collated the results, one thing became clear: wandering minds increase unhappiness.
The study found that when people focus on the task or situation at hand, be it driving, doing dishes, or studying history, their happiness level is at the highest. In fact, the researchers found little correlation between the task being performed and the individual’s happiness level. In other words, participants were nearly as happy when cleaning the house as when dining out—the variable was what they thought about when involved in each activity. Thoughts apparently count a whole lot more in determining happiness than the actual activities you do. As Killingworth details:
“The nature of people’s activities explained 4.6% of the within-person variance in happiness and 3.2% of the between-person variance in happiness, but mind wandering explained 10.8% of within-person variance in happiness and 17.7% of between-person variance in happiness.
While thinking upbeat thoughts does little to nothing to increase happiness, thinking anything other than the happiest thoughts undermines happiness to a significant degree. For instance, if you’re commuting to work and you think about nothing other than the commute itself, you’ll be happiest. You’ll actually be a tad bit unhappier if you think about your upcoming vacation to the Bahamas or how much you love your dog, significantly less happy if you think about where you’ll go for lunch or the genesis of Mesopotamian myths, and you’ll utterly bottom out if you muse about the fight you just had with your spouse. Likewise, if you try to make the task more pleasant when you’re cleaning the toilet by imagining yourself winning the lottery, you’ll in fact end up less happy than if you had simply held your breath and focused on scrubbing.
As the Buddha so famously said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. According to the research, the typical mind is somewhere else 47 percent of the time, meaning that for half of our lives, we aren’t really present to experience whatever is occurring. Certain activities seem particularly conducive to mental drift: showering (65 percent of time), working (50 percent), exercising (40 percent). In fact, we daydream at least 30 percent of the time no matter the activity, with only one notable exception. When having sex, the typical mind wanders only 10 percent of the time.3
The key point, though, is that the health benefits of happiness have been well-documented. For instance, a 2012 study out of Harvard found that higher levels of happiness correlate to cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of heart disease.4 Earlier studies found that happiness boosts the immune system, counters anxiety, reduces the likelihood of developing chronic conditions or experiencing pain, and even extends life.5 If happiness leads to a healthier, longer life and focusing on the moment leads to increased happiness, there’s even more reason to be here now than Ram Das advertised back in the day.
The problem is that we may be hardwired to daydream.6 Researchers believe the mind “idles” in daydream mode, never really shutting down, in much the same way a running engine hums along at a stop sign, always working. Or to quote from the Bhagavad Gita 6:34, “Verily, the mind is unsteady, tumultuous, powerful, obstinate! O Krishna, I consider the mind as difficult to master as the wind!” That’s why meditating is such a challenge for the average person. And yet, meditating is one of the best ways to learn to control wandering thoughts, to practice focusing. It certainly seems worth the effort to do so given the potential benefits.
- 1. https://www.amazon.com/Be-Here-Now-Ram-Dass/dp/0517543052/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1483821152&sr=8-1&keywords=be+here+now
- 2. Killingsworth, Matthew A. and Gilbert, Daniel T. “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” 12 November 2010. Science 6 January 2017. http://www.danielgilbert.com/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf
- 3. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_killingsworth_want_to_be_happier_stay_in_the_moment#t-521846
- 4. Landau, Elizabeth. “Why Happiness is Healthy.” 3 April 2015. CNN. 6 January 2017]. http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/20/health/happiness-wellbeing-health/
- 5. Newman, Kira M. “Six Ways Happiness is Good for Your Health.” 28 July 2015. Greater Good. 6 January 2017. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_ways_happiness_is_good_for_your_health
- 6. Castro, Jason. “A Wandering Mind is An Unhappy One.” 24 November 2010. Scientific American. 6 January 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-wandering-mind-is-an-un/