Everybody’s Happy Nowadays

There was an interesting article in the Harvard Gazette this week, reporting on research into the secret of happiness.

In a study published in Science, Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert recruited subjects from all over the world, then used a specially-designed iPhone app to contact them at random times, asking what they were doing and what they were thinking about, and prompting them to complete a happiness rating scale.

The results showed that maximum contentment was reported by those who were concentrating on what they were doing at that moment, rather than recalling the past or anticipating the future. This was true even if the immediate task was dull, and they were dwelling on pleasant memories, or looking forward to some enjoyable diversion. The researchers conclude that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” and that the key to happiness is to stay in the moment.

I think this is true as far as it goes, but it does rather assume that immediate gratification is the only outcome worth bothering about. Reflecting on past experience, or planning for the future, may not be so instantly pleasing, but I think they are still worthwhile in their own way.

That said, I have found that, as I have advanced in years, I have tended more to appreciate what is going on in the present, rather than dwelling on days gone by, or thinking about what tomorrow might bring. This is counterintuitive to some degree; I have a lot more past behind me than I did when I was younger, and many more responsibilities that should make me pay more attention to the future.

I guess this might be a cultural thing, reflecting modern society’s limited attention span and preoccupation with sensation, but I think it is mainly due to my growing realisation of my mortality, which makes the past too loaded with feelings of loss to contemplate, and renders my hopes for the future rather pointless.

Well, that’s a rather downbeat ending for a post about happiness. Here’s something to cheer you up.

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