It is important to recognize that our lives are made up of days which consist of small increments of time. In order to live a life of happiness, we need to be present and in the moment every day and choose actions that are in line with our overall goals (more often than not). The more aware we become of our thoughts, feelings, and habits, the more we can start to question whether they are beneficial to our overall wellbeing.
Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, claims that we live a great deal of our lives on autopilot, and never really paying attention to what we’re doing. Have you ever been driving your car and arrived at your destination with no real memory of how you got there? Our brains use autopilot as a shortcut, and of course, it can be helpful to be able to ride a bike, touch-type or brush your teeth without putting a load of conscious attention into it.
The problem is, when we’re on autopilot, we can stop paying attention to a lot of things – to our minds and what we think about, as we’ve talked about, but also to our bodies (we might absent-mindedly shove a ton of chips into our mouth while watching TV), or our relationships. We can take things for granted and carry on with habits that are counter-productive towards our goals without even realizing it.
The neural pathways in our brain are wired by patterned behavior. This is why it’s so important to try shifting to positive, loving thoughts when you find yourself feeling resentment or anger. The brain, in this way, is like a muscle – the more you exercise a certain part of it, the stronger it gets. If your default is to think negative thoughts, then that’s what you’ll switch to when you’re not paying attention.
You may have heard of mindfulness
Mindfulness stems from Buddhist meditation and is partly the idea of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Jon Kabat-Zin, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life writes that mindfulness can help us to become unstuck from habits that contribute to us feeling out of touch with ourselves and can bring us back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality.
He describes mindfulness as the opposite of taking life for granted, and explains that when we ignore the present moment and focus instead on dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, we miss out on understanding ourselves and lose perspective.
You don’t have to convert to Buddhism to practice mindfulness
What Kabat-Zin calls ‘the art of conscious living’ is gaining popularity in its own right, and there are schools where you can take short courses in mindfulness or join regular classes of mindful meditation. Whether you take time out to actively meditate or not, living mindfully means paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them to be good or bad, and paying attention to the present moment – not in a cold, unfeeling way but with love, appreciation, and compassion.
The non-judgemental aspect of mindfulness is important, as all too often we can beat ourselves up for thinking something that we feel we shouldn’t. For example, you might find yourself feeling resentful over something a co-worker said. After recognizing it, you might tell yourself “I’m being bitter again! I’m so bad at thinking positively, I’m such a failure!” This goes back to setting high standards for yourself, pushing yourself to be happy, and expecting it to happen right away. Instead, recognize the feelings of bitterness. If you feel annoyance at yourself arise, let yourself feel it, too, but don’t feed those feelings by thinking more about it.
A typical piece of imagery from mindfulness is to imagine thoughts as clouds passing by. Watch them, acknowledge them, let them pass. Don’t try to chase them away and don’t stare too hard at them or try to pin them down. Once you get caught up in a feeling, you might find yourself ruminating or worrying.
Although it stems from Buddhism, a lot of scientific support has come out for mindfulness in the last few years. It has been shown to reduce stress and depression, increase job satisfaction, reduce emotional burn-out, and increase positive emotions and life satisfaction in general. Scientists have even detected changes in brain function related to positive emotions, and found an increase in immune function during mindful meditation (see Brown & Ryan, 2003; Davidson et al., 2003; Hulsheger et al., 2013; Feicht et al., 2013).
- Choose an everyday activity – it could be a regular walk, drinking a cup of tea, or brushing your teeth. Instead of distracting yourself with your phone, TV, or your thoughts, try to be fully aware of everything in the present moment.
- This means focusing on your own movements, as well as the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, how the tea feels in your mouth.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a blissful experience; the idea is to learn to become more ‘present’. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back and don’t beat yourself up – it’s natural for the mind to wander!
Being Aware of What You Eat
One common practice in mindfulness is to take an everyday activity that you normally do on autopilot and to become really aware of it. For example, eating – instead of distracting yourself with TV, focus on your food – how it looks, how it smells, the taste and the texture, noticing the subtle layers of flavor that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to.
Mindful eating has even been shown to help people lose weight. Timmerman and Brown (2012) found that people were far more effective at losing weight after being trained in mindful eating, becoming aware of when they were full, and recognizing the triggers that might lead them to eat more than they should. Being mindful of your eating experience might even cause you to realize that you don’t like certain foods that you’ve been eating for years.
As well as being aware of what you eat, try to think about the outcome you want for your body and lifestyle. For example, your goal might be to maintain a healthy weight so that you can continue to do active things right into your old age. Temporary diets are unlikely to last – try instead to learn a little about what’s good for you and balance your exercise and nutrition (with maybe a couple of small deviations now and again).
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- Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(4), 822.
- Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Random House LLC.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion.
- Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/carlbcampbell/7283584838/