Many of us go through our days unaware of how we should live a good life. What happens when we don’t live the life we want? We accumulate stress and manifest physical and mental illnesses, like diabetes, obesity, depression, and anxiety. All of these are modern symptoms and they don’t just appear. They are the result of our modern society, like the way we emphasize productivity and getting results, and valuing our worth based on things outside of ourselves (e.g. job, money, house, social status). Changing our society and the way we look at each other is not an easy task, but we can take action and make deliberate changes in our lives and those of others.
Sonya Lyubomirski of the University of Colombia says that our happiness levels are 50% genetics, which is the part that we can not do much about. This is exemplified by the Hedonic Treadmill effect, which states that our happiness levels revolt around a basic ‘happiness set point’, which is genetic and we can’t do much about. However, 10% is influenced by our environment: the way we were brought up, our financial situation, our family and friends, and other environmental factors. And a whopping 40% is made up of intentional activities, which are the things we do that influence our daily lives. This indicates that we can change how we feel on a day to day basis.
What exactly makes us unhappy? Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert did some research on the topic and found out something remarkable. They created an app called ‘Track Your Happiness’, which gives a pop-up message at random times of the day, prompting three questions:
“How are you feeling right now?”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?”
It turns out, when people were thinking about something other than what they were doing, they responded much more negatively compared to when they were completely indulged in the task at hand. There seems to be a direct relationship between the amount of mind-wandering and our perceived state of happiness. The more our mind wanders throughout the day, the less happy we are, and vice-versa.
Luckily, our minds are plastic. No, they are not made of plastic. What I mean is our minds are NEURO-plastic, i.e., they have the ability to change over time as a result of our experiences. Eleanor A. Maguire studied the brains of London taxi drivers and compared them with non-taxi drivers. She found that these taxi drivers have a much greater amount of gray matter in the brain’s posterior hippocampus, which plays a role in memory. This makes sense as taxi drivers in London have to know all the streets in the city of the top of their heads. The more experienced a taxi driver is, the more gray matter he has in this part of the brain. This gives a clear indication that our brains are not static, and we can train our brains just as we can train our bodies. This means that if you have a wandering mind, which you probably do, you can train yourself to wander less and be more focused, ultimately increasing your well-being.
When you are thinking about random thoughts without actively controlling them, you engage your Default Mode Network. This is the region of the brain that is active when our mind wanders. As with most things in life, the DMN isn’t all bad. It can actually help our creativity, but we use it far too much. Moreover, mind-wandering will never reflect our peak experience. The way to train your mind to wander less is through mindfulness.
According to John Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to the present moment. When you try to do this at the beginning, you will see that you lose your attention quickly and get caught up in your thoughts again relatively soon. By bringing your attention back, time and time again, we train our minds and become better in it. You can see it like this: your mind is the muscle, and your wandering thoughts are the weights. They provide resistance so your brain can develop the regions responsible for attention, and so train your mind to wander less.
"Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to the present moment."
Now see that he uses the word ‘non-judgmentally’. This means that we don’t criticize ourselves and we don’t criticize others. We take action where needed, but stop blaming ourselves for the mistakes that we unavoidably make. What does this have to do with being mindful? It will help us reduce the number of negative thoughts we have. Thinking about negative thoughts while doing something completely unrelated greatly reduces our happiness. Hence, training ourselves to judge less will make us more mindful and increase our well-being.
Another definition of mindfulness, this time given by Barry Boyce of Mindful.org, is that “mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us”. Now, this last part is important. Overreacting to situations often means we raise our voice during arguments, we say (unintentional) negative things about others, or we become very quiet and keep to ourselves. Feeling overwhelmed because we feel like we have too much work to do, tasks to complete, or expectations to meet, elicits similar fight or flight responses.
Overreacting and feeling overwhelmed are often results of stress and anxiety, which can be worsened by an overactive mind. On the other hand, when we learn how to calm the mind, we gain control over our emotions. When you ask yourself “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?”, it will help you to calm down and become more aware of yourself and your surroundings. This will allow you to notice your emotions, and instead of reacting immediately, you investigate and take appropriate action.
Mindfulness is a way of living. You cannot expect that practicing some techniques a couple times a day will solve all of your problems. This way of living encourages you to live every moment as if it is the most important moment in your life. With that being said, there are a number of exercises you can apply on a daily basis that will help you reach that mindful state of calmness and take control of yourself and your surroundings. By practicing specific mindfulness techniques, we can ‘upgrade’ our lives so that we feel better and in the long run, do better.