Salvation Army psychologist Lyn Beasy* talks about the problem of being stuck in the past and the future.
Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking. But it usually means we don’t take much notice of what’s going on around us. We get caught up in thinking about what happened yesterday, or what might happen in the future.
Mind-wandering is often our default way of being and can come at an emotional cost. Getting stuck in ‘past and future’ thinking can lead us to be stuck in habitual thought patterns, which influence our general mood.
In 2010 Harvard researchers set out to quantify mind-wandering. They tapped into people’s levels of happiness several times a day. Using an app (trackyourhappiness), one of the researchers Dr Matt Killingsworth asked people to record their thoughts, feelings and actions as they go about their daily activities and assess their level of mind-wandering; that is, whether they’re thinking of something while they’re actively engaged.
The study found that people were less happy when their minds wandered. Not so surprising was that people were most present when engaged in face-to-face communication while giving their full attention. They were least present when at work!
We spend nearly 50% of waking hours thinking of other things, and, while daydreaming can be a welcome mental escape from boring repetitive tasks, Dr Killingsworth would suggest that how present a person is directly relates to their level of happiness.
Mind-wandering even affects us at the cellular level. Increased stress can lead to changes in our cells and shorten our lives, leading to increased risk of disease. We are aware of the risks of chronic stress on our health, now we can actually see the effects of stress at the molecular level.
Do a little research of your own and notice the content of your thoughts. How many thoughts are about ruminating over past events that you are unhappy about, judging your thoughts or other people, things that you have to do or that might happen in the future?
Consider how often you’re guilty of mind-wandering and being lost in your thoughts when someone is trying to talk to you, or you’re trying to engage in a task? Chances are it doesn’t lead to a sense of accomplishment, connection or increased happiness.
Expanding your awareness helps you to stay connected to your present experience. We are at our happiest when we’re lost in the moment, savouring the present experience using all of the senses. Being mindful and present disengages the wandering mind that is caught up in habitual and automatic negative thought patterns.
*Lyn Beasy is a psychologist at the Caringbah Wellbeing Clinic.
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