The Stress of Distraction: Cultivating Mental Calm

It’s not uncommon for a person to seek counseling because they feel overrun, worn down, stressed and unhappy. Many of the factors explored in therapy have to do with relationships, past experiences, and family or workplace dynamics. But as we continually learn about how humans think and feel, the role that less individualized factors play in our daily happiness seems to be growing. What does this mean? Modern life is fraught with distraction, and it seems that the more distracted we are, the less happy we become. Three recent studies have shed light on varying aspects of our distracted experience.

First, researchers have found that living in the city is pretty rough on the brain. We already know that natural landscapes are a more calming backdrop than urban landscapes, But psychologically, the constant stimuli isn’t just a backdrop: it’s something that city-dwellers must be actively engaged in. Paying attention to subway stops, dodging traffic, and weaving between pedestrians takes up a large amount of attention and leave(s) us mentally exhausted, says the study, leaving less brain power for reflection, memory, and other personal processes. On the flip side, employees who telecommute are happier than their office-bound coworkers. Decreased work-life conflict and fewer distractions means less stressful jobs, which benefits these workers both personally and professionally.

Both of these studies are real-life illustrations of a connection recently made by researchers at Harvard: the more our minds wander, the less happy we are. The researchers used an iPhone app to check in on people’s mood, task, and thoughts at various times of day. Not only do people spend almost half of waking hours thinking about something other than the task at hand, but doing so makes us pretty unhappy. So what to do about it? Chronic distraction and mental leapfrogging may be a sign of attention and focus issues, in which case therapy can help an individual adjust mental habits. But more broadly, it does us good to ‘unplug’ daily: spending time outside, focusing on one task at a time, creating quiet environments, and turning off electronic devices that take us out of ‘the now’ are all ways to cultivate mental calm and, thus, happier minds.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Halle


    November 18th, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    Oh boy. I’m reading this and feeling guilty about yelling at my son yesterday because I was stressed out trying to get dinner organized on time. It was over a trivial thing and I was in the wrong. I need to apologize. All because an old friend had dropped by unannounced and it wrecked my schedule. I barely heard what she said because I was distracted by the time passing.

  • Mason


    November 18th, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    And as I read this I see I have eight tabs open in Firefox for things I want to read shortly that I found on other pages I was reading. Am I getting away from what I originally started looking for? Heck yes! It’s very hard to stay focused online when there are so many goodies vying for your attention. I think I need to put myself on a tab diet.When I bookmark things I never go back to read them, hence the numerous tabs.

  • Kool Penguin

    Kool Penguin

    November 18th, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    Although most things in an average city dweller’s life are not great for the mind,It’s next to impossible to escape from these things.So we should atleast try and incorporate things related to nature in our life.This can be a weekend getaway to the country-side or just a walk in the park.But the important thing is to have nature’s presence in your life.

  • Chappell Marmon

    Chappell Marmon

    November 18th, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    This couldn’t be more true…for my clients and for myself. I see adolescents all day long who are so distracted by video games and text messages that they are barely aware of their own families or their school work. I multi-task all day long, and I wind up feeling frustrated and unproductive. Two or three times a week I head to the climbing gym after work. I find that when rock climbing, it is impossible to focus on anything other than the task at hand…either belaying my partner or figuring out how to move my body skillfuly to the top of the wall. I always feel so refreshed and happy after an hour or two of climbing. I should take this lesson and apply it to my work day!

  • Ash


    November 18th, 2010 at 12:08 PM

    I get more done in a single morning working from home than I ever did in an 8 hour day. My productivity went through the roof because I didn’t have all the surrounding hustle and bustle. When you have quiet, it’s much easier to concentrate.

  • Leeanne


    November 18th, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    I have two computers at home in different rooms. It’s not unheard of for me to be working on both at the same time. One could be running a download or updates while the other is doing more immediate work. Both need my attention because I have to check the connection doesn’t get dropped on the download every so often. Because of that I’m not totally engaged on the other task. I know it’s not ideal but it feels like timewasting if I don’t utilize both simultaneously.

  • hattie


    November 18th, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    That’s a recipe for burnout if ever I heard one, Leeanne! You need to give yourself a break and some time out. Time out isn’t time wasting either. You’ll be more productive when you do one thing at a time instead of attempting to multitask. Get up right now and get some fresh air.

  • Lionel


    November 18th, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    I can’t stand living in cities. I did it once and I’d never do it again. Who wants to listen to noise and sirens all night? You get up and all you see is gray buildings, dirty streets and preoccupied commuters. It’s a very lonely life.

  • Roger


    November 18th, 2010 at 10:52 PM

    I find myself distracted from studies by various things like cell phone,computer,television and gaming console. Also I believe that the distraction levels have only increased over the years with the advent of technology and electronic gadgets.

  • Cindy


    November 19th, 2010 at 4:27 AM

    Distraction is natural and a little bit of it is no harm.

    Also too much of controlling over this is not good.A lot of workplaces have networking sites and a few other sites blocked so that the employees do not waste time.That is alright.But goin over the top and monitoring every page accessed,as done in a few offices,is not good either.

  • stacy


    November 19th, 2010 at 5:39 AM

    ha! If I got to stay home all day and work in my pajamas I would probably have less stress too!

  • Nathan


    November 19th, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    I read before it takes you 15 minutes to switch focus fully from one task to another. Every time you stop and start and go back again, you’re derailing that focus. Pick one project and stick with it until completion before moving on to another. It’s not rocket science.

  • Yvonne H.

    Yvonne H.

    November 19th, 2010 at 8:39 PM

    Tell me about it. I would see the same men and women on the subway Monday to Friday, obviously working the same shifts as I was, and nobody ever talked or tried to get to know each other. This went on for almost three years. I know we worry more about personal safety than we did forty years ago, and rightly so, but come on. A smile goes a long way.

  • Mitchell


    November 19th, 2010 at 11:50 PM

    Believe it or not, exchanging pleasantries with fellow travelers used to be one of the joys of taking public transportation. I used to like a little chat and a little companionship to break the monotony of the day when I lived alone.

  • Doris


    November 20th, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    My problem is I want to squeeze too much into too little time and there’s no room for flexibility. I’m always rushing between this and that, thinking three steps ahead. I go to bed exhausted and I wake up exhausted. Overrun is a great description of that.

  • hector


    November 21st, 2010 at 8:58 PM

    The biggest plus of telecommuting is that you’re not becoming involved in office politics. Even if you tend to steer clear of that, when you share an office and there’s a power struggle going on that you’re witnessing, it’s distracting.

  • catherine


    November 21st, 2010 at 10:48 PM

    No, Hector, I disagree. The biggest plus is working in your pj’s and your slippers with no makeup on! LOL. I don’t miss the forty minute drive either.

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