Your Happiness Depends on One Thing: Your Attention
Think of all the things that happen within your day; All the interactions with family, friends, your boss, and workers at coffee shops and grocery stores. Why do some things bug you but others don’t? Better yet, why is it that on certain days something will bother you, but if the same thing happens on a different day, you barely notice it?
Let me give you a quick example from my own life. Not long ago I was in the express line at my local supermarket and the woman in front of me put 18 items up on the conveyor belt instead of the stated 15 maximum. I know this because I counted her items. (And, no, those 10 cans of cat food don’t count as one item and, yes, I know I was being petty). I stood there steaming as she pulled out a check. Really?! Who the hell writes checks anymore and why didn’t you fill it out while we were waiting on line for the last 5 hours?! Then she needed to find a pen and her license in a bag big enough to carry seven people comfortably.
By the time I paid (my transaction only took about 90 seconds, of course) and got to my car I was still seething about this woman. As a matter of fact, if I had gotten hit by a truck at that very moment, my last thoughts would not have been about my amazing family, great job or the many lovely things in my life. My last thoughts would have been about a woman I’d never met!
Now, there was another day, not that long ago, that this exact same woman was standing in front of me at the checkout (she seems to be in front of me a lot some days), but I didn’t feel the need to count her items or focus on her at all! Instead, I picked up a trashy mag and read a few things about Brad and Angelina while eating some Rolos as I contentedly waited for my turn.
What gives? Why is it that one day I’m all caught up and working myself into quite a state when, on another day, it barely registers? It’s the same reason that some days your partner does something and you freak out and, other times, you dismiss it with a shrug or a smile.
There’s been a lot of research into what makes us happy. The surprising fact is that things like the amount of money you make, whether you’re married or not, your education level and where you live all have very little effect on how happy you are! Yes, people are generally happier when they make more money or are married, but the differences are actually quite small according to the research.
In fact, one of the biggest impacts on your happiness is something you do without even realizing it: allowing your mind to wander.
Here’s the deal. Your mind wanders A LOT. In fact, 47% of the time, you’re thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing!
Ted Talk with Matt Killingsworth
Now, this is the average so depending on what you’re doing, you might be above or below this number. The research shows, for example, that people are mind wandering about 65% of the time when they’re showering or brushing their teeth and only about 10% of the time when they’re having sex. The bottom line: mind-wandering infiltrates everything you do.
So, how does mind-wandering relate to your happiness? Researchers have found “that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering, than when they’re not.”
And it’s not just if you’re mind wandering because you’re doing something you don’t like because people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing. So, even if you’re commuting (which most people really don’t like), you’re going to be happier if you’re focused only on your commute versus letting your mind think about something else.
Take a minute right now and think about your own mind wandering. What are you generally thinking about? If you’re like most people you’re stressing about your “to do” list for some of that time. The rest of your mind wandering is likely taken up with your relationships in some way. You’re reviewing a conversation you had with your boss or partner last week and playing it over and over again in your mind; What you “should” have said or how wrong he or she was about something. Or, maybe you’re worried about something in your future: if your daughter’s going to be crushed if she doesn’t make the basketball team or what’s going to happen to your aging mother.
In the end, focusing on your partner, mother, boss, coworker, friend or sibling is not the answer. It’s all about focusing on yourself and what you’re thinking. This is because, you feel the way you think. How you react to the world, believe it or not, isn’t about what the world is doing. It’s all about what you’re thinking and focusing on. If you want to feel happy, confident and strong, you’re going to need to pay a lot more attention to what you’re thinking about. This means, you really need to limit that mind wandering.
You’ll hear me say over and over that you can’t have a great relationship with anyone else until you have a great relationship with yourself. But, what exactly does that mean? How do you have a great relationship with yourself?
Being honest with yourself is the key. And, to be truly honest with yourself, you have to know what’s really driving your behavior. Believe it or not, you’re often acting out of a place of fear: jealousy, anxiety, frustration, resentment, worry, codependence, grasping, blame and entitlement are all fear-based emotions. You can’t have a truly intimate and loving relationship with yourself or anyone else, if you’re making decisions and taking actions from all that fear.
So, you’ve got to start with being in charge of that mind of yours. You’ve got to be in charge of your fear response. You can help how you think and feel. You can change your perceptions and expectations so you can be happier moment to moment and it all starts with being mindful or paying attention, in your moments.
You’ve probably heard this word a lot and you’re likely wondering just what it means. Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings. That non-judgmental part is crucial because it means that you accept what you’re thinking. It means you pay attention to these thoughts and feelings without judging them. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel. What you’re feeling is what you’re feeling, whatever it is.
When you practice being mindful, your thoughts tune into the present moment instead of rehashing the past or imagining the future.
Now, you might be thinking that mindfulness is the same as meditation and, if you’re like most people, the idea of meditating turns you way off. Do you know that research shows that people would rather be electrically shocked than be alone or still with their thoughts?!
So, let me first do some clarifying. Mindfulness is the same as attention training. You’re literally learning to train your attention on whatever it is you’re doing in that exact moment. Meditation is a tool you can learn and use to be more mindful or train your attention better, but it’s not the only road to Rome. There are many tools you can use to build a mindful life. So, while I like meditating and hope to change your mind in the future about it, for now, let’s start with another favorite mindfulness practice of mine; It’s called “Setting Intention.” Basically, you take a breath, focus on the present and set an intention for how you’d like to be moving forward in your day. You can set an intention to be patient, kind, fun, open, mindful or whatever floats your boat. That’s it. Then you simply try to be mindful of keeping with your intention.
If you want a little more info, here’s a link to a super short video on how to do it. It only takes about one minute of your time to set intention, so I want you to practice doing it three times per day for one week. That’s three minutes per day and I promise, if you do this, you’ll see your life start to change immediately.