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March, 2014

A Key to Contentment

by Larry

Being contented, we are told, is a condition sought by many, achieved by few. Thousands, maybe millions, of words have been written on this overall topic. Have eight hours of sleep a night, if you wish to be happy. Or eat a nutritious diet. Cultivate friendships, for if one adds just one new friend, that can make us 10% more glad to be alive. Get a moderate amount of daily exercise. Be appreciative of what one has. Relax. Keep it simple. Laugh more. Yet it seems these maxims may themselves miss the mark, setting up a duality between what is and how one wishes they were, making things too complicated.

Recently a fellow, Matt Killingsworth, developed an app for measuring how happy people are when doing various things. He got responses from 35,000 people. The conclusions: we are actually happiest when immersed in what we are doing. So, maybe it is as simple as that, over and over again, just "be here now." Like the baby really curious about his or her environment, like a person in love, like many one-on-one personal interactions, like someone grasping a fresh insight, like an artist truly seeing what is to be drawn, like a person focused on another's communication, listening to the words, watching each facial expression, like someone learning to do a thing for the first time, perhaps we are at our best when fully engaged.

Tell me a story, a parent and her child, with focused attention (Wikipedia)

According to Killingsworth, one counterintuitive finding was that it need not matter whether one particularly liked the task. One could be well engaged in cleaning a small part of the house, washing the car, commuting to or from work, or doing a specific part of an "unrewarding" job. So long as it was done with good attention, there was a similarly positive effect as when actively involved a pleasant hobby, and, indeed, the well attended to undesirable task could be more pleasurable than a favorite activity when the latter was done without good focus.

Why does it work? Humankind enjoys a great advantage over its competitors in the animal kingdom, our relatively super brains. Hypothetically at least, evolution has given us feelings of greater satisfaction when engaged in functional processing using this substantial mental resource. We enjoy doing what we can do well. On the other hand, when we are not efficiently focused, our gray matter still needs stimulus and finds it in the form of daydreaming and obsessing. All too naturally, we tend to think with sadness, regret, or grievance about things we feel ought to have been different in our pasts, or we brood about what unfortunate things might happen in our futures. Such uses of these large minds are neither productive nor pleasing. Being fully engaged in the moment precludes such disturbing distractions and offers us instead the simple delight of doing what needs to be done or of really perceiving the objects of straightforward awareness.

Suppose this is true? What then? How do we lose ourselves in the moment? Apparently it is not rocket science. Focus on one thing at a time. If we notice ourselves beginning to daydream or otherwise to drift off from the current task, perception, or feeling, merely return to it, again and again. Notice, for example, the rise of the abdomen when breathing, the sound of the refrigerator, specific smells, traffic noises, tensions in one's muscles here and there, the shape and wrinkles in a person's hands, dust motes in a beam of light, insects to be photographed, birds in flight, the food on the plate, or...whatever.

Can full engagement in the moment be cultivated? Evidently so. Each person can find what methods work best for him- or herself. Here are a few suggested ways:

  1. Sit in a relaxed posture and notice the breathing. Each time one exhales, count one; each time one inhales, count two. If the mind wanders, gently bring it back to noticing the breathing. It can be done for as little as one to five minutes or for considerably longer with awareness enhancing effects.

  2. Since we are more engaged when doing something fresh, try each day a new activity, maybe going to a museum one day, tackling a math problem the next, learning a set of new words the next, fixing a novel recipe the next, and so on.

  3. While eating, particularly if alone, notice the many sensations and motions involved in lifting the utensil, putting food into the mouth, chewing, tasting, swallowing, moving the utensil for the next bite, etc.

  4. Or one can build novelty into one's schedule in a more structured way, for instance taking a foreign language course, traveling to a new country each year, teaching a community course each semester, or frequently taking up a fresh skill, like singing, violin playing, digital photography, becoming familiar with a new computer, deliberately adding an acquaintance to one's social network, or teaching English as a second language.

  5. During traffic jams or difficult commutes, notice each thought, sensation, perception, or feeling that can be attended to. With practice, one may become aware of a dozen, two dozen, even many more different objects of thought in a five-minute span. Take a short break. Repeat. Almost before you know it, the jam may be cleared and the commute close to ending for that day's trip.

Certainly being fully engaged in the moment is not a perfect solution to all unpleasantness. We may still not like going to the dentist or being involved in a car crash. Yet if Killingworth's researches are correct, most of the time a simple shift of awareness, attending to the here and now, can be rewarding. So, the next time you find yourself wool gathering or brooding on a disturbing thought, you might try a simple alternative, for we can really only focus on one thing at a time, and switch the awareness to specific aspects of whatever you are already doing.

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