It’s easy to claim a connection between mindfulness skills and various benefits, but is there any proof that this actually exists?
As it happens, there is some pretty strong evidence of benefits from being able to live in the present moment.
Matt Killingswort describes himself as a ‘happiness researcher’. Sounds like a great job, but I suspect the actual day-to-day is a lot less enticing than the title might suggest.
In fact, Matt designs studies that gather data on happiness and analyses the results to see what insights can be gained.
Matt was looking for a scientific understanding of happiness and asked a pretty basic question: ‘when are humans most happy?’
As a scientist he did not wish to depend on anecdotes and wanted to avoid the types of bias that might be introduced in an interview-type situation.
He hit upon the idea of developing an app that would let people report how happy they were feeling in real time. Importantly, it also let him follow up the report with a couple of simple questions. And he was also able to repeat the exercise many times.
The result was a large data set of over 650,000 data points from 15,000 people drawn from a broad range of lifestyles, work situations, and from different countries.
People could report how happy they were feeling at a point in time, what they were doing at that time, and what they were thinking about.
The results were pretty striking.
For a start, he found that people allowed their minds to wander from what they were doing 47% of the time on average. This was across all activities with the wandering rate being at least 30% for almost all activities.
When he analysed the data he found that people who reported that their minds were wandering were notably less happy than people who were focused on the present.
Anyone who has tried mindfulness will not be surprised by that. But Matt went further.
He realized that this was simply a correlation and asked was there causation involved.
Was it the case that allowing your mind to wander, failing to focus on the present, would lead to less happiness?
Or perhaps it was the reverse: that people that experienced unhappiness allowed their minds to wander from their immediate circumstances as these may be the source of the unhappiness.
This would certainly seem like a pretty rational explanation to many people.
What Causes What?
When the data were analysed, Matt found that there was a causal relationship in one direction only.
People who were not focused on the present were more likely to report feeling unhappy 30 minutes later than people whose minds were not wandering.
However, the data did not indicate that people who were feeling unhappy were any more likely to report that their minds were wandering 30 minutes later when compared to happy people.
So, allowing your mind to wander reduces you happiness. But unhappiness does not necessarily result in your mind wandering.
As Matt concluded: “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”
The Science of Mindfulness
Matt presented his results in TED talk a while back. You can watch a recording by clicking on the video link below. (10 minutes)
If you prefer, you can just listen below or click here and right click ‘Save As’ to download an MP3 of the talk to listen back to later.