Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

This is a Transcript of Matt’s Talk from ! 

So, people want a lot of things out of life, but I think, more than anything else, they want happiness. Aristotle called happiness “the chief good,” the end towards which all other things aim. According to this view, the reason we want a big house or a nice car or a good job isn’t that these things are intrinsically valuable. It’s that we expect them to bring ushappiness.

Now in the last 50 years, we Americans have gotten a lot of the things that we want. We’re richer. We live longer. We have access to technology that would have seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. The paradox of happiness is that even though the objective conditions of our lives have improved dramatically, we haven’t actually gotten any happier.

Maybe because these conventional notions of progress haven’t delivered big benefits in terms of happiness, there’s been an increased interest in recent years in happiness itself.People have been debating the causes of happiness for a really long time, in fact for thousands of years, but it seems like many of those debates remain unresolved. Well, as with many other domains in life, I think the scientific method has the potential to answer this question. In fact, in the last few years, there’s been an explosion in research on happiness. For example, we’ve learned a lot about its demographics, how things like income and education, gender and marriage relate to it. But one of the puzzles this has revealed is that factors like these don’t seem to have a particularly strong effect. Yes, it’s better to make more money rather than less, or to graduate from college instead of dropping out, but the differences in happiness tend to be small.

Which leaves the question, what are the big causes of happiness? I think that’s a question we haven’t really answered yet, but I think something that has the potential to be an answeris that maybe happiness has an awful lot to do with the contents of our moment-to-moment experiences. It certainly seems that we’re going about our lives, that what we’re doing, who we’re with, what we’re thinking about, have a big influence on our happiness, and yet these are the very factors that have been very difficult, in fact almost impossible, for scientists to study.

A few years ago, I came up with a way to study people’s happiness moment to moment as they’re going about their daily lives on a massive scale all over the world, something we’d never been able to do before. Called, it uses the iPhone to monitor people’s happiness in real time. How does this work? Basically, I send people signals at random points throughout the day, and then I ask them a bunch of questions about their moment-to-moment experience at the instant just before the signal. The idea is that, if we can watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day, minute to minute in some cases, and try to understand how what people are doing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and all the other factors that describe our day, how those mightrelate to those changes in happiness, we might be able to discover some of the things that really have a big influence on happiness. We’ve been fortunate with this project to collectquite a lot of data, a lot more data of this kind than I think has ever been collected before,over 650,000 real-time reports from over 15,000 people. And it’s not just a lot of people, it’s a really diverse group, people from a wide range of ages, from 18 to late 80s, a wide range of incomes, education levels, people who are married, divorced, widowed, etc. They collectively represent every one of 86 occupational categories and hail from over 80 countries.

What I’d like to do with the rest of my time with you today is talk a little bit about one of the areas that we’ve been investigating, and that’s mind-wandering. As human beings, we have this unique ability to have our minds stray away from the present. This guy is sitting here working on his computer, and yet he could be thinking about the vacation he had last month, wondering what he’s going to have for dinner. Maybe he’s worried that he’s going bald. (Laughter) This ability to focus our attention on something other than the present is really amazing. It allows us to learn and plan and reason in ways that no other species of animal can. And yet it’s not clear what the relationship is between our use of this ability and our happiness. You’ve probably heard people suggest that you should stay focused on the present. “Be here now,” you’ve probably heard a hundred times. Maybe, to really be happy, we need to stay completely immersed and focused on our experience in the moment.Maybe these people are right. Maybe mind-wandering is a bad thing. On the other hand, when our minds wander, they’re unconstrained. We can’t change the physical reality in front of us, but we can go anywhere in our minds. Since we know people want to be happy, maybe when our minds wander, they’re going to someplace happier than the place that they’re leaving. It would make a lot of sense. In other words, maybe the pleasures of the mind allow us to increase our happiness with mind-wandering.

Well, since I’m a scientist, I’d like to try to resolve this debate with some data, and in particular I’d like to present some data to you from three questions that I ask with Track Your Happiness. Remember, this is from sort of moment-to-moment experience in people’s real lives. There are three questions. The first one is a happiness question: How do you feel, on a scale ranging from very bad to very good? Second, an activity question: What are you doing, on a list of 22 different activities including things like eating and working and watching TV? And finally a mind-wandering question: Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing? People could say no — in other words, I’m focused only on my task — or yes — I am thinking about something else — and the topic of those thoughts are pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. Any of those yes responses are what we called mind-wandering.

So what did we find? This graph shows happiness on the vertical axis, and you can see that bar there representing how happy people are when they’re focused on the present,when they’re not mind-wandering. As it turns out, people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not. Now you might look at this result and say, okay, sure, on average people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, but surely when their minds are straying away from something that wasn’t very enjoyable to begin with, at least then mind-wandering should be doing something good for us. Nope. As it turns out, people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing. For example, people don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities, and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else. It’s amazing.

So how could this be happening? I think part of the reason, a big part of the reason, is that when our minds wander, we often think about unpleasant things, and they are enormously less happy when they do that, our worries, our anxieties, our regrets, and yet even when people are thinking about something neutral, they’re still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering at all. Even when they’re thinking about something they would describe as pleasant, they’re actually just slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering. If mind-wandering were a slot machine, it would be like having the chance to lose 50 dollars, 20 dollars or one dollar. Right? You’d never want to play. (Laughter)

So I’ve been talking about this, suggesting, perhaps, that mind-wandering causes unhappiness, but all I’ve really shown you is that these two things are correlated. It’s possible that’s the case, but it might also be the case that when people are unhappy, then they mind-wander. Maybe that’s what’s really going on. How could we ever disentangle these two possibilites? Well, one fact that we can take advantage of, I think a fact you’ll all agree is true, is that time goes forward, not backward. Right? The cause has to come before the effect. We’re lucky in this data we have many responses from each person, and so we can look and see, does mind-wandering tend to precede unhappiness, or does unhappiness tend to precede mind-wandering, to get some insight into the causal direction.As it turns out, there is a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later, consistent with the idea that mind-wandering is causing people to be unhappy. In contrast, there’s no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later. In other words, mind-wandering very likely seems to be an actual cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.

A few minutes ago, I likened mind-wandering to a slot machine you’d never want to play.Well, how often do people’s minds wander? Turns out, they wander a lot. In fact, really a lot. Forty-seven percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. How does that depend on what people are doing? This shows the rate of mind-wandering across 22 activities ranging from a high of 65 percent — (Laughter) — when people are taking a shower, brushing their teeth, to 50 percent when they’re working, to 40 percent when they’re exercising, all the way down to this one short bar on the right that I think some of you are probably laughing at. Ten percent of the time people’s minds are wandering when they’re having sex. (Laughter) But there’s something I think that’s quite interesting in this graph, and that is, basically with one exception, no matter what people are doing, they’re mind-wandering at least 30 percent of the time, which suggests, I think, that mind-wandering isn’t just frequent, it’s ubiquitous. It pervades basically everything that we do.

In my talk today, I’ve told you a little bit about mind-wandering, a variable that I think turns out to be fairly important in the equation for happiness. My hope is that over time, by tracking people’s moment-to-moment happiness and their experiences in daily life, we’ll be able to uncover a lot of important causes of happiness, and then in the end, a scientific understanding of happiness will help us create a future that’s not only richer and healthier, but happier as well. Thank you. 


“My green slacks are hanging on the bottom rack on the right side of the closet. I want the forest green ones; not the brownish green or light green. And, the flowered silk blouse that goes with them is on the top rack hanging towards the middle. You’ll know which one it is when you see it. Just pick out whatever flat shoes you think will look best.” Mom was smiling as she planned her wardrobe for Thanksgiving Day.

I was nearly out the door when she stopped me. “One more thing, you know those gold drop earrings you gave me years ago? I’ll need those, too. And, if you don’t mind could you come early enough to make sure my makeup and hair look nice?” I walked back to give her a hug, kiss, and told her not to give it another thought, “You’ll look just beautiful! See you about 11 a.m. tomorrow. I love you, Mom.”

The short two-block drive to my parent’s home was somber. We’d traveled to Kansas to spend the holiday with them but it would not be celebrated as in years past; Mother had been in a nursing home for several months. The many fractures in her spine from osteoporosis were inoperable; Mother would remain there permanently.

We mustered all our strength to be positive and keep her spirits up as she adjusted to the one thing she’d always feared most-being confined to a nursing home. The only tiny, tarnished, silver cloud to be found was that the home she’d never return to could actually be seen from the facility. I prayed it made her feel like she was only down the street having coffee with a friend.

Always able to hide her feelings so as not to upset her loved ones, Mother appeared to be handling her situation well, although I knew down deep that in a matter of time she’d not be able to keep up the charade. The following morning I arrived with the items Mom had requested and we went to work dressing and primping. She looked beautiful even with the oxygen tubing draped across her cheeks.

With Mom situated in her wheelchair, we made our way to gather with family awaiting our arrival near the foyer. As we neared, I noted instantly that Dad’s blue eyes, which had lost their luster in recent months, instantly came to life and regained their brilliance, for he’d not seen the love of his life “dolled-up” in quite some time. It warmed my heart to view the change.

Our linen-dressed table in the formal dining room was near the fireplace, a pianist played quietly in the background, and the meal was delicious. Everyone at the table was on stage like actors in a play; we struggled to feign jovial attitudes, not only for Mom’s sake, but to prop one another up as we experienced a sorrowful and drastic change in a lifetime of family Thanksgiving traditions.

Still, there was much to be thankful for when I forced myself to see beyond the darkness that tried to encompass me. Mother had enjoyed a healthy life of independence for 83 years with a man she loved dearly. She suffered no pain with her condition and she was still as sharp as a tack!

I was fortunate in having my mom to share the holiday with although it wasn’t at “home” and was missing favorite family dishes as only she could prepare. None of us knew it would be the last Thanksgiving we’d spend with Mother.

Eight holidays later I realize what a true gift the day was. Each cherished moment is remembered as if it were yesterday. My emotions that holiday were intermingled with love and grief. And, to this day they remain the same.

Remember when you count all you are thankful for. Often what seems less than ideal may be your most valuable blessing. Hidden in disguise.

May you all have a lovely Thanksgiving filled with love and many blessings!

©2009 Kathleene S. Baker


Kathleene, and husband, Jerry, reside in Plano, Texas. Pets have always been a passion and a precious schnauzer named Josey Lane inspired Kathy’s first piece of work. As a freelancer, she has contributed to newspapers, anthologies, magazines, online ezines, and writes a weekly column entitled “Heart of Texas.” Kathy’s website: She can be reached via email at

The Dash { Poem }

The Dash

by Linda Ellis, copyright 1996

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone,
from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved her
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read,
with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent YOUR dash?

Linda Ellis