A recently published study concluded that the more your mind wanders, the less happy it is. That is, staying focused and present might go a long way to increasing your satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
The study was conducted in a novel way – using the iPhone. An application that people voluntarily downloaded to the iPhone randomly questioned participants about their current mental state – what they were thinking about, and how happy the felt. People who living in the present – attending to the task at hand or the environment around them – were significantly happier than those who were off in the world of daydreams.
Now, you may be thinking the same thing that went through my mind when reading this – that people who are unhappy with what they are doing are more likely to daydream, and so the results may indicate that daydreaming is a result of unhappiness rather than a cause of it. However, the researchers address that question in the study and seem to be convinced that the wandering mind is the source of the discontent rather than a product of it. Have a look yourself if you are interested in learning more.
In a way, it makes sense. There is a certain satisfaction or enjoyment that comes with being focused. And within the realm of wellness, spirituality and self-help, there is much emphasis on the power of being present, living in the now.
The brain is designed to be a learning machine. It has evolved over millions of years to digest all the information around it and synthesize it into behaviors and decisions that enhance our probability of survival and reproduction. For all the talk you hear about specific regions controlling particular aspects of your body or your cognition, the truth is that the brain is highly adaptable and can undergo considerable reorganization/reconfiguration when tasked to do so.
You need only consider a child to see how readily and eagerly the mind absorbs information; for the first 10-15 years of life we are rapidly trying to figure out the world around us and how we fit into it all. Everything around us during this time is exciting and new and we soak it all up like a sponge. Unfortunately, that process stops sometime soon thereafter for most people. In many cases, as we near adulthood, we choose a ‘career’ – or at least a more narrow path – and then focus most of our mental energy in that direction. We lose track of all the other activities/people/ideas out there to behold and consequently reduce the ways in which we use our minds.
Given the brain’s proclivity to learn, this process of narrowing our interests is probably doing us a great disservice. Granted, it may allow us to excel in a particular field, but it may also make us more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and even Alzheimers or other forms of dementia. Perhaps even more importantly, it increases the chance that our lives will become dull, routine, commonplace and otherwise boring. As soon as we forget that this world is a totally fascinating place, rife with opportunities to explore, grow, experience and the like, we have given up one of the fundamental aspects of being human. When we are no longer curious seekers of new ideas, new hobbies and new people, we are effectively resigning to a life of stasis. I am not suggesting that life needs to be teeming with stimulation – certainly there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the simple life has many merits – only that we should always keep learning and seeking out novelty to keep our minds young and our lives full of the richness that surrounds us.
The brain thrives on novel stimuli. It loves to learn, to explore and discover. However, many of us lead lives of routine and pattern that limit how much new stuff our brains are exposed to. If this describes you, do yourself a favor and work to break these patterns and start seeking out new things. In general, new friends and new hobbies are probably the best way to go, but these require a considerable time commitment, so if you are unable to take these large steps you should start off with something smaller. Try this:
Pick an environment or object you are familiar with and regularly exposed to, whether it be your garden, the beach, the woods, your walk to work, or even just a painting in your bedroom. Inspect this environment carefully and try to notice some detail about it you have never seen before. In all likelihood, this will be easy, as our brains routinely filter out information they deem irrelevant. The next time you are taking that walk, working in your garden, or checking out your painting, try to find something else new, and continue with this process. Over time, you will begin to see the environment/object in ever greater detail, and with any luck, that tendency to look closer at things and be more aware will carry over into other aspects of your life.
This tip emphasizes a general trend that emerges in many of these brain fitness tips: don’t be lazy and complacent with your mind. Use it as it is meant to be used, and be sure to take in all the richness of the world around you. Step up to challenges instead of shying away from them, and let what your brain does best: learn, grow and adapt.
This is possibly the ultimate brain fitness tip. So few of us make the effort to explore meditation or to practice it regularly, yet it can have such a profound and positive impact on the brain. Thanks to new advances in neuro-imaging technologies, scientists are now able to observe the effects of meditation on the mind, and the results are staggering. Prolonged meditation has the capacity to physically transform the organization of your brain and can empower you to become more attentive & relaxed, among other things (like eliminating bad habits and negative thought patterns)
But don’t just take my word for it! Check out these links to learn more about the myriad benefits of meditation.
Meditation Sharpens the Mind
How Thinking Can Change the Brain
An Interview w/Richard Davidson
Clear Mind Meditation Techniques
Benefits of Meditation