Happiness Strategy: Live in the Present

In this fifth post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, I’ll look into the value of living in the present. According to Professors Matthew A Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, our minds wander 46.9% of our waking hours. Rather than focusing on what we’re doing, we’re ruminating about the past, contemplating the future, or fussing about situations that may not come to pass. And as it turns out, mind-wandering makes us unhappy. So, what can we do about it?

girl in a state of flowPursue engaging activities. In his national bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi advanced the thesis that people are happiest when they are so completely immersed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time. Such activities tend to be challenging and demand our full concentration while stretching our skills and expertise. We feel fully in control yet swept away by the current of activity. Such activities are deemed inherently pleasurable and worthy of repetition, albeit with ever-increasing demands on our abilities. Csíkszentmihályi notes:

“There is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.”

To that end, the chosen activity must balance our current skills with the designated challenge. Too little challenge and the activity induces boredom; too much and it engenders anxiety and frustration. When just right, the state of flow proves highly engaging and yields a substantive boost to self-esteem in its aftermath. Lyubomirsky’s recommendations for pursing flow include:

  • Cultivating the art of paying attention consistently to the task at hand
  • Becoming a lifelong learner, approaching each new subject with an open beginner’s mind
  • Paying attention to the activities in which you naturally experience flow; figure out how to replicate them
  • Adding mind-bending elements to routine tasks – e.g., working through puzzles in your head, writing poems, composing melodies, committing things to memory
  • Creating flow in conversations by listening deeply
  • Narrating your chosen profession as a calling rather than just a job or career

Savor life’s joys. When ruminating, planning, or worrying, we’re foregoing the opportunity to revel in all the good that life has to offer. We may even get stuck in a cycle of negativity. We could choose instead to savor the past by reveling in our fondest memories. We could relish whatever is happening in the present moment. And we could anticipate the future with a sense of optimism. When we mindfully accentuate positive experience, we bolster our happiness and make it less likely that depression, anxiety, guilt, or stress will take root. A few activities to put in the hopper include:

  • Slowing down and paying close attention to the sights, smells tastes, sounds, and feel of ordinary moments – e.g., truly savoring a meal rather than gulping it down while dashing off to another activity
  • Waxing nostalgic about the good old days with friends and family, thereby increasing the experience of joy, accomplishment, amusement, and pride
  • Celebrating good news however big or small with family and friends
  • Being open to beauty and excellence
  • Creating a savoring photo album or soundtrack to reference periodically as a means of reawakening a sense of joy