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Be Focused, Be Happy

Recent research that has been making the media rounds lately has reported that when people are focused on a task they indicate that they are happier than when their mind wanders. This research is obviously not breaking news for the tens of millions of Buddhists and uncounted others who have experienced the phenomenon of being “present” or “in the now” first hand. Quite simply, being in the moment allows us to fully experience whatever we are doing and gain the full benefits of what the experience has to offer. In contrast, letting our minds wander or allowing our minds to be distracted constantly prevents this state of “flow” and, as the recent evidence suggests, actually makes us less happy.

This finding is another example of science confirming what we already know. At the same time, knowing something intuitively often doesn’t ring loudly enough for us to recognize the subtle, though significant, impact it can have on our lives. So telling us what we already know can help us to connect crucial phenomena to how we live our lives.

The implications on these findings, along with other recent research demonstrating that so-called multitasking actually interferes with efficiency, performance, productivity calls into serious question how most of us use (and often abuse) new technology and social media. Consider this. Why would people engage in activities that make them both less productive and more unhappy? Yet that is precisely what countless of us appear to do when we multitask or use technology in a way that prevents us from focusing on the task at hand.

Consider how we used to function at work, school, or home. We would have a project we needed to accomplish, so we would stop what we were doing (e.g., reading a book, mowing the lawn) and direct our attention onto the task at hand. The most distraction we would be confronted with might be a phone call, someone entering the room, or boredom and the desire to do something different. In all of these cases, we would have to stop what we were doing and make the distraction our focus until we were finished, and then reengage with our original task. So, the very primitiveness and infrequency of the past distractions enabled us to stay focused on what we were doing for extended periods. The result? We were generally productive and, if we believe the research, pretty happy as well.

Now let’s fast forward a generation to the present. New technology, in the form of mobile phones, email, texting, the Web, and, more specifically, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other social media, enables us to be in a constant state of distraction (what we euphemistically like to call multitasking). Our ability to immerse ourselves in a single activity is becoming a lost art. Indoor activities have long ago been co-opted by technological distractions. At the office, in our homes, at the gym, in theaters, at school, nowhere is safe from these intrusions. But now the outdoors, once highly valued escapes from the busy world in which we live, has been invaded by technology. For example, it is a rarity these days to see runners without headphones in their ears (it’s even becoming increasingly common while biking and skiing).

Why this constant need for distraction? It may be that, in this troubled world in which we live, constant distractions are our way of escaping the many uncontrollable problems that we face (e.g., the economy, wars, terrorism). Or, the advent of this new connected world has caused us to change our attitudes, expectations, behavior, and, as a result, our habits in ways that we haven’t had time to fully grasp nor have time to change now that they are entrenched. Or, as other research has demonstrated, continuous connectivity produces neurochemical changes in our brains akin to drug use and gambling.

But, my theory is that, in our always-connected, constantly on-the-move, breadth-over-depth lives, we have lost touch with what real happiness is. We mistake stimulation, momentary pleasure, and that neurochemical high for real happiness which, the research indicates, actually comes from meaningful relationships, valued goals, and, yes, absorption in an activity.

Paradoxically, there is other emerging research that has found that people can absorb themselves very deeply in technology, for example, video games and social media, spending hours undistracted, and fully focused. But, as I just mentioned, this concentration appears to occur due to the neurochemical “fixes” new technology offers. But, somehow, that kind of absorption strikes me as qualitatively different than the focus that occurs when we’re wrapped, and enrapted, in life.

It may be that we are losing our ability to focus and this decrement could have serious implications for us individually and collectively. But, if this recent research proves accurate, then my greatest fear is not that it will hurt our collective productivity, though those ramifications are already showing up in the business world, where the use of personal email and Web surfing during the workday is taking its toll, and on the road, where mobile phone use and texting have costs lives.

At a more elemental level, my concern is that we will lose our ability to absorb ourselves and find delight in the minutiae of life: the subtlety of the written language found in a book, the smell of lilacs while out for a walk, the sight of a hummingbird extracting nectar from a flower, the intellectual and emotional enjoyment of a stimulating conversation. And without these “simple pleasures” perhaps what will be most lost is the depth of happiness that can only come from unmediated, complete, and sublime engagement in life.

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