A recent article in Science (reviewed in the New York Times) lends support to what practitioners of mindfulness already know. First, our minds wander a lot. According to the study about 47% of the time (and the percentage of wandering varied considerably by activity). Second we are happier when concentrated on what we are doing. Not surprising being engaged in sex produced the least amount of stray thinking (only 10%) and the highest level of happiness.
Data was collected by using an iPhone app and collected a quarter million data points from over 2,000 people. The study was conducted by Harvard Researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness).
The highest level of mind wandering was observed in people engaged in personal grooming (65%). Again, this is not a surprise. Sex is compelling and naturally draws into mindfulness. Personal grooming is not so compelling and can be done quite automatically and thus attention is free to wander.
And when attention wanders our happiness is diminished. We often think of happiness in terms of what we are doing, and this study highlights that how is more important than what. The authors note, “Our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”
The article does not mention mindfulness but mindfulness is all over it. It does mention the concept of flow, a subset of mindfulness that arises when the activity we are doing provides the optimal level of challenge. However, flow depends on things being just so and only arises in exceptional circumstances. Mindfulness, however, can help us to bring flow to even the most ordinary and mind-numbingly boring activity. By doing so the activity is no longer boring. This is the gift of being present.
While the study demonstrates happiness is more available in the present moment it doesn’t tell us how to improve our ability to stay with whatever it is that we are doing. Of course, this is precisely what mindfulness training does for our attention. It trains us to recognize when our thoughts have wandered away from the activity of the moment and to bring attention back to now.
While we don’t need much encouragement to be mindful during sex we can take advantage of personal grooming time to practice being present, especially since this is the time when the mind most wanders and such wandering thoughts can set the tone for the rest of the day. If we can give our full attention to the experience of grooming and retrieve and return thoughts whenever they wander, grooming can become an informal mindfulness practice.