Could the true cause of happiness be simply thinking about whatever we are doing at the moment, what meditators call mindfulness?
Today, I want to talk to you about mindfulness, a word that gets a lot of attention these days. Its teachers say that mindfulness meditation leads to a stabler, more present mind that can become an enduring source of happiness. But when you hear a claim like this, a curious skeptic might ask what science has to say about the causes of happiness.
A dozen years ago I heard about a study by Harvard scientists who wanted to figure out what makes people happy. When the study began, people were just starting to use smartphones, so the researchers had this new tool at their disposal, an app that could ping people any time of the day and ask them about their mood.
The scientists’ app was called Track Your Happiness, and it could buzz in your pocket or by your bedside at all times of the day and night to ask, “How are you feeling right now?” You could answer on a sliding scale from very bad to very good. The app also asked two other important questions: “What are you doing right now?” and “What are you thinking about?”
What’s your guess about which activity made people happiest? Was it eating, exercising, talking to friends, watching TV, or going to church? Surprisingly, the lead scientists, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, determined that there was almost no correlation at all between the activity people performed and their happiness. People reported a broad range of feelings—from terrible to great—for every activity.
But that doesn’t mean the study was a failure. The researchers also found that instead of the activity itself correlating to happiness, what mattered most was what people were thinking about while they performed that activity. The answer to what caused happiness most frequently turned out to be simple: when people were thinking about the activity they were doing, they were happy, regardless of the activity. Their research shows that just having your mind on what you’re doing brings you happiness, and the opposite seems true as well.
So someone could be eating a delicious dinner, but thinking about what they’re going to watch later on Netflix, and they’d report their state as unhappy. Or someone could be doing housework or commuting, and completely focused on that task at hand, and they reported feeling good.
One of the wildest results of this study is that it didn’t matter if the distracting thought itself was happy or not. Even if you were anticipating watching your very favorite show on Netflix while eating that delicious dinner, just the distraction from your present activity could make you less happy.
You might wonder whether the study asked about making love as one of the activities. It was one of the first things that came to my mind. It also brought up the annoying image of someone getting interrupted by this buzzing app while in bed. It turns out the scientists did also track the activity of making love. And, no surprise here, it’s a massive outlier in the positive direction on the happiness scale.
However, the happiness of making love was not correlated most with the activity of sex itself, but instead, with how much focus people have during that activity. When people are making love, it turns out they mostly think about making love. And it’s this attentiveness to the activity that may be the cause of our happiness at that moment, more than the pleasure of lovemaking itself.
To get specific, the study determined that only about 5 percent of a person’s happiness at any moment is attributable to the activity they are doing, whereas a person’s mental focus—or lack of mental focus—accounted for about 11 percent of their happiness.
When the authors published their work in the prestigious journal Science, the title of their paper brought home their point: “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”
When I read about this experiment, I had already been studying Buddhism for ten years, and I immediately saw the connection to the teachings on mindfulness. My Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and numerous books and texts also made this same point, that happiness is immediately available to us if we are simply able to place our mind on whatever we are doing or experiencing right now.
What Is Mindfulness?
The popular mindfulness movement has taken this one aspect of Buddhist practice and made it the dominant, and in many cases the only, form of meditation for a lot of newcomers. The premise of mindfulness is simple: if we remain present and aware of what’s going on around us, and present and aware of our inner mental states, we can remain happy even in the face of difficult experiences.
It’s not immediately obvious that this would be the case. Escapism is a huge part of our culture: fleeing unpleasant experiences through the distractions of entertainment or work or substances or physical thrills. But mindfulness says that happiness comes from the opposite, from honestly and openly facing whatever is happening inside us and around us. And the wandering mind study from a decade ago backs this idea up.
How many of us are mindful?
Mindfulness may sound great, and we all know popular phrases like “Be in the present” or “Be here now,” that encourage us to be mindful. But how many people are actually mindful? Is it easy or hard to be mindful? And does mindfulness actually lead to happiness?
A more recent study looked into some of these questions and found a disturbing result. The author, Tasha Eurich, found that only 15 percent of people are self-aware, meaning they have an active awareness of their own inner thoughts and experiences and values, the ability to look at themselves from a distance.
That number sounds frightening to me. And I think it explains some of my most difficult relationships, particularly the ones I had at work, a place where we can come into contact with people who are very different from us.
Dr. Eurich says that we can become more self-aware by asking ourselves questions that start with “what,” like “What kind of person am I?” Or “What do I need to do to get through this experience?”
But while her solution may lead to self-awareness, it may not always lead to happiness, which she doesn’t address. Both of these types of “what” analysis may be more focused on the future than on the present. And if we remember the Track Your Happiness study, it indicated that being present is more important to happiness than whatever you’re doing.
How do we become mindful?
So how do we cultivate this mindful, present-focused state of mind? This is where we can draw on the two-thousand-year-old tradition of Buddhist meditation.
Mindfulness, as it’s defined today, is almost a secular stand-in for Buddhism, without mentioning the B-word itself. If you start to look at all the books and courses and apps about mindfulness, you’ll see that within the mindfulness category you can also find more specific, analytical meditations like the ones we do in the Skeptic’s Path podcast: meditations on love or compassion or impermanence or gratitude.
In the Tibetan tradition that we draw from here, mindfulness is more precisely and narrowly defined as one mental tool that keeps your mind focused. Sometimes it’s translated as “remembering.” It’s the part of your mind that keeps the mind focused on whatever you want it to.
The core technique of mindfulness is to break out of habitual responses and see what’s truly present in the moment, both inside and outside ourselves. With mindfulness of our external environment, we can more deeply connect with the world as we move through it. And with mindfulness of our inner states, and attentiveness to the hearts and minds of the people around us, we can more deeply connect with others.
I once heard a teacher say that the greatest gift you can give someone is your attention. Can you remember the last time you felt someone give you 100% of their attention? It’s such a wonderful feeling, whether it’s across the dinner table from your partner, or the total attention of a teacher who really cares about you, or the laser focus of a child who soaks up every word you have to offer them.
I’ve spent some time studying the principles of Nonviolent Communication, and once my teacher suggested that the way you should listen to someone, if you really want them to feel heard, is not to think at all about what you are going to say next.
Try this and you’ll see that it can be both exhilarating and a little frightening, like walking around with your eyes closed. Then, when the person you’re listening to stops talking, there’s a moment of silence that might feel uncomfortable at first, when you break out of your absorption of what they are saying to come back into your own mind and start reflecting on what to say yourself.
I’m not that good at this 100% listening myself, but I have a couple of friends who are able to listen like this, with total attention. And most of my Buddhist teachers have this quality too. I love how they don’t even start thinking about an answer to my question until they’ve fully heard it. It shows in the long pause when I stop talking, and only then they start thinking about what to say back, what would be of benefit.
This way of feeling completely heard has made me come to realize that I often already feel better simply through having been heard, without needing to hear anything back in return. Sometimes it’s just the connection with another person that’s healing; or at other times, the act of being heard helps me to come up with my own answer.
This type of intense listening seems aligned with the Track Your Happiness approach, where focusing completely on what is happening in front of you, on this beautiful person speaking to you, is a proven source of happiness. You can try this complete focus while listening some time and see what it does for you. When I’m able to do it, I find that it’s enjoyable in itself, mainly for seeing the joy of the person I’m listening to, who’s appreciating so much being heard.
So one form of mindful practice might simply be listening with focused attention, without any thought of what you’ll say next, and without following all the interesting tangents your friend’s speech triggers within your mind.
Mindfulness in meditation
But for most of us, it’s not easy to listen mindfully like this. When I try, my mind often drifts away. I get triggered by almost everything the person says, getting caught up in my reactions or excitement or judgments; or planning to contradict them, or to agree with them, or to make plans based on what they’re saying, all brought on by that other person’s words.
And that’s where meditation comes in. The mindfulness approach says that it’s very difficult to achieve stable concentration in a conversation or anywhere else in life until we first achieve focus in the training ground of our meditation cushion.
Theoretically, it should be easier to focus during meditation, when there’s less stimulation, and little sound or movement around us. The first step of meditation is simply slowing down. When you do slow down, your thoughts can seem even wilder at first, but my teachers say that this is only because you’re finally getting a little space from those thoughts, seeing them from a distance. So the first step of slowing down can be simply becoming aware of the busyness that exists in your consciousness.
Mindfulness starts in the body
We’ve talked a lot about analytical meditations that are focused on the mind, harnessing our imagination and our love and warmth to steer our mind toward beneficial, kind, and awe-inspiring thoughts and stories. But we haven’t talked a lot about the body. And the body has a very important role to play in mindfulness.
The Buddhist view is that there is a very strong connection between the body and the mind. They aren’t separate. Science emphasizes this point too, that the brain doesn’t end at the base of the neck, but extends through every nerve fiber in our body. It’s not a one-way connection from mind to body or vice versa. That’s why, when we meditate, there are particular recommended postures and practices for relaxing the body head to toe.
One basic form of mindfulness is to slowly move your mind from one part of the body to another. First, you become aware of whatever feeling you discover in that part of the body, and then you try and relax it.
One of my teachers once said that your mind moves to wherever you place it. So, in a literal way, when you’re thinking about your toe, in a sense, your mind is actually inside your toe.
Here’s another aspect of the mind moving through the body: supposedly, it’s not possible to have the mind aware of multiple places at once or multiple concepts at once. So moving the mind away from a place of pain can sometimes help to temporarily alleviate that pain, as we focus on neutral or pleasant sensations in another part of the body.
Mindful body meditation doesn’t require much more elaborate instruction than this. You simply move the mind from place to place in your body, from your toes up to your head, becoming aware of each part of the body, and seeing how each part of the body feels, then gently letting each part of your body relax. You can see how this kind of meditation can be both analytical and relaxing at the same time. The meditation is analytical in questioning and observing how we feel, and it’s relaxing in accepting or letting go of those feelings.
Mindfulness of the breath
And then there’s the breath, which can be so helpful in cultivating mindfulness. Our breath is always with us, and it’s a signal of our state of mind, whether fast and excited or slow and calm. When we put our mind on our breath, we connect with our continuously changing body in a powerful, fundamental way. Our breath is our connection to the rest of the world. We literally breathe in little bits of everything and everyone around us, and we breathe out our most intimate inner parts that again become part of the people and the world around us.
When you’re focusing on your breath, you don’t need to change it. Remember, we’re trying to stay with the present moment, rather than change it. So you can just focus on the breath however it is.
It sounds simple, but when you try, most people can’t wholly focus on the breath for more than seven seconds without other thoughts or feelings or perceptions intruding. And that’s okay. Accepting yourself, wherever you are, is an important part of mindfulness meditation. And there are also gentle, accepting techniques for steering your attention back to your breath.
One of the techniques I like most from the mindfulness movement is the one you apply when you’ve lost your object of focus. It’s a positive, optimistic method that says when you notice you have drifted away from your object, it’s not a failure, it’s a good sign. Just by recognizing that you’ve drifted away, your awareness has already returned. You became mindful of your distraction.
It’s only when we are completely oblivious of the present moment that we lose our mindfulness. So, as soon as you have that feeling of “Oh shoot, I was lost,” you can then feel good and think, “Oh, wonderful, I’ve brought myself back to the present moment!”
Mindfulness as a basis for everything else
Cultivating mindfulness on the cushion like this, becoming aware of our breath and body, should gradually help us to be more mindful later, when we get up off the cushion. The point of mindfulness isn’t to retreat into our own protected inner world of happiness. The practice pays off, and in some ways only begins, when we are able to carry it into everyday life. Practicing mindfulness in everyday life allows us to be fully present as we move around our house, as we work with others, as we connect with our loved ones, or even as we experience pain and conflict.
I have to say that I’ve found this discussion itself relaxing, going back to the basics of mindfulness that we never really touched on in-depth on the podcast. Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear these themes of mindfulness come up with other guests and we’ll share two short 10-minute guided meditations on the body and the breath, one of them guided by our producer, Stephen Butler.
See if you can make a small amount of time to practice these meditations yourself over the next couple of weeks. Give yourself the mental space to slow down and be present. And if your time allows, try and meditate not just once, but for a few days in a row, ideally in the morning, and see how a short mindfulness practice can benefit the rest of your day.
Thanks for joining me in this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Our podcast is a nonprofit organization and we offer all our episodes and classes free and ad-free. If you’ve benefited from this and other episodes, please consider making a tax-deductible donation. You can find links to give cash, credit, Bitcoin, and Ethereum on our web page at skepticspath.org.
This episode was produced by Stephen Butler. Russel Marsden, our new audio engineer, edited and mastered this episode. Russell is a longtime collaborator with Stephen, and we welcome him to the podcast team this week. Our theme music is by Bradley Parsons, with story editing by Tara Anderson, who’s also new to our team, and first helped out with our episode on Birth, Death, and Infinity. And thanks to Jason Waterman, our marketing director, for helping to get the word out on social media for our podcast.
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Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Edited & mastered by Russell Marsden
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Episode art “Dominant Curve” by Wassily Kandinsky, 1936 via WikiArt