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The surprising secret to happiness

Updated: Oct 25, 2011 04:00 PM EDT
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By Stacey Colino

From Live Right Live Well 

What's the secret to happiness?

Would you believe it may be as simple as paying more attention to what you're doing? New research from Harvard University shows that people who are focused on the present moment and fully engaged in what they're doing at any given time are more likely to be happy than people who are distracted from the task or activity at hand.

In the study, researchers used a smartphone app to ping 2,250 adults at random times during the day. Each time the participants were pinged, they took note of what they were doing and how they were feeling at that moment. They also noted whether they were thinking about something other than what they were doing, and if so, whether their thoughts were positive, negative or neutral.

What the researchers found: People's minds wander during nearly 47 percent of their waking hours -- and people reported they were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they weren't.

"We still don't know exactly why mind-wandering is associated with diminished happiness," says study co-author Daniel Gilbert, who has a doctorate in social psychology and is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Even when the mind wanders to a positive topic -- an upcoming vacation or a recent wedding -- people are no happier than when they are engaged in what they are doing, and that's true even when what they are doing isn't particularly fun. When it comes to happiness, it is hard to improve on being here now."

4 Ways to Be Happier

So the secret to happiness, it seems, may be to stay more focused on the present moment and not let your mind wander elsewhere. Here are four ways to do that:

Check in with yourself regularly.

Periodically ask yourself, "Am I on task or did I drift?" then consciously corral your attention and bring it back to what you're doing, recommends psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein, who has a doctorate in education and is the author of The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy.

Tune in to your senses.

Whether you're writing a report or cooking a meal, if you make a conscious effort to pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations that are involved in what you're doing, you'll invest more of yourself in the project at hand -- which will make your mind less likely to wander.

Break the rumination cycle.

"When our minds wander, we often go to places that have charged remarks and memories," which can take a toll on your mood, says Holstein.

So when you catch your thoughts wandering, especially if they're going down a path into negative memories or worries, give yourself a cue -- whether it's visualizing a stop sign, shrugging your shoulders or repeating a phrase like "There I go again" -- to halt the journey, suggests Holstein. Then, bring your thoughts back to the present moment.

Immerse yourself in meaningful activities.

"If you recognize what makes you happy and do things that provide a sense of purpose and meaning, you'll make it that much easier to be in the here and now," says Holstein. This in turn will enhance your enjoyment of the experience at hand and boost your overall happiness quotient. It's a win-win situation.

Stacey Colino
has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.

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