Saturday, January 29, 2011

Way To Happiness Rediscovered Through Science

Eons ago, the Zen masters said that to be happy you must live in the moment 'NOW.' This indeed is the gist of Zen philosophy, the rest is mere commentary. And so did pronounce the Indian rishis thousands of years back in Vedas and Puranas, now a fresh voice has just been added to those age-old masters' discourses—the voice of an young American psychologist, Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard.

Killingsworth, and Daniel T. Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, used a special "track your happiness" iPhone app to gather research on 2250 participants. The results of the study confirms, we spend at least half our time thinking about something other than what we are doing at that moment, and this makes us unhappy.

Dr. Gilbert raised the question, “Which would make you happier: winning the lottery, or losing the ability to walk? It may seem like a no-brainier, but the answer may surprise you.” Gilbert said that research demonstrates, one year later, the paraplegics are just about as happy as lottery winners. How does this happen? The answer is that happiness is all in our minds, as the spiritualists have said it all along.

According to Matthew, multitasking raises our stress level, in other words, if we are playing golf and thinking about last night's party at our friend's place where we had a gala time, despite our indulgence in the happy memories, our game is going to suffer since our stress level is bound to increase.

Any wonder why our lives are so stressful?

Matthew published his research findings in the journal Science where he says: How often people's minds wander is definitely a big predictor of who's happy and who's not happy, because the more often they take themselves out of the present moment, the less happy they are. He went on to maintain that even if we time share with pleasant daydreams, it makes us unhappy.

The guinea pigs for this study were iPhone wielding volunteers, whose average age was 34. The researchers used the specially developed iPhone app for their experiment that called the volunteers several times a day and asked them a few standard questions such as: how they were feeling just before they were contacted, what they were doing, and if they were thinking about something else other than what they were doing. More than 5,000 people are now using the iPhone Web app.

The study found that even when people perform seemingly unpleasant tasks such as running errands or doing a monotonous routine, their unhappiness level increases as they shift their focus from the tasks at hand. People often indulge in daydreams in unpleasant or neutral topics, and as expected those thoughts are likely to increase the level of unhappiness, however, what surprised the researcher was the fact that even pleasurable thoughts made participants no happier than when they were focused on the activity they were performing, whatever the activity may be.

Although this seems to be a paradox, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who teaches at Stanford University explained, “When the mind wanders to a happy memory, it tends to eventually turn back to things that aren't quite as positive." Killingsworth explained it in terms of a concept, what he called "default mode, a non-pleasant thought stuck in the brain. For instance, while remembering about a romantic Paris honeymoon, one may come back to the thought of the overpriced hotel that is deeply etched in the memory and became a "default mode." His advice is, contemplate the past to learn from it, but then move on, so that in the future you are prepared to avoid the default mode.

Killingsworth thinks that this default mode probably gave us an advantage by making us watchful to dangers in our hunting and gathering stages of evolution. McGonigal said, "We maximized our survival chances even if we didn't maximize our happiness, evolution doesn't give a damn about happiness." In our time, however, we give paramount importance to happiness, and McGonigal said that we can increase our happiness by keeping our mental focus, or mindfulness, by practicing certain skills regularly.

Wondering what they are? Go see a Zen teacher, or an Indian Yogi, for they are exactly similar techniques that McGonigal prescribes: Live in the moment. Here are five techniques from McGonigal summarized by Deborah Kotz, in her article, Want to Be Happier? Keep Your Focus:

1. Begin the day with a focused task: Be in tune with whatever you are doing.
2. Exercise with alertness: Immerse yourself in it, feel it, sense it, live it.
3. Engulf yourself in a good book or movie: Live the scenes, engross yourself.
4. Reduce multitasking: This breeds tension and unhappiness.
5. Meditate: Practice five to 10 minutes of daily meditation.

You say, you heard them before? I agree. Nonetheless, when we re-discover the ancient truth with new scientific research, it gives wings to the old thoughts, and make them more believable, and more effective, for it is our faith that gives real strength to any construct to be useful in our lives.

Article first published as Way To Happiness Rediscovered Through Science on Technorati.

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