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 GoodTherapy.org.
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