Must Be Present to Win

How to Cultivate the Art of Being Present in Your Life

must be present to win

Mind Wandering Causes Unhappiness

With the explosion of recent research in the causes of happiness, I’d like to highlight one that caught my attention. This is a study conducted by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth andDaniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. They found that mind wandering leads to unhappiness.

In this study, the scientists followed a diverse population (over 15,000 people) throughout their day via an iPhone app to study their moment-to-moment happiness. To find out what makes people happy, the scientists asked the study participants to answer questions about their mood, activities, and thoughts at various times of the day.

In the over 650,000 reports, Killingsworth and Gilbert found that 47% of the time people are thinking about something else besides their current activity. That’s almost half of one’s thoughts wandering onto topics not related to what they are currently doing. You may want to contemplate this statistic next time you are with others, whether it’s a work meeting or a social function.

And no matter what the activity, people are less happy when their minds wander. For example, when participants were involved in a less enjoyable activity, like commuting to work, they were significantly happier when focused on the commute than thinking about something else.

Killingsworth also explains this research in a TED Talk.

Wander why

I am fascinated by this notion that as soon as our stream of consciousness leaves the present state, we are more inclined to feel unhappy. Killingsworth suggests the reason why mind wandering causes unhappiness is due to the unpleasant content of our thoughts. Oftentimes, when we track our mind-wandering thoughts, they may include themes of self-doubt, perfectionism, fears, and anxieties that bring our moods down. When the mind wanders, we may be rehashing the details of a past experience or worrying about what others are thinking about us. If we learn to hold our own thoughts more lightly and stay present, it matters even less what other people’s thoughts are.

These acts of mind wandering jolt us out of the present moment and may impact our sense of groundedness. For example, when taking a yoga class, and the teacher starts to count down the seconds to remain in the pose, you may find yourself struggling and losing concentration. Now, your focus is no longer on the present moment in the pose, but on the seconds left before you can exit the pose. Hence, another reason why it is important to be in the here-and-now: there is a sense of connection and centeredness in being in the present moment.

The power of being present

If we know now that when our mind wanders, these thoughts may not lead to happiness, we also know our thinking brain will continue to produce thoughts. Therefore, what we do with these thoughts is what shapes our present moment and quality of life.

Since it seems rather difficult to control our thoughts, it may be more fruitful to direct our attention to being in the here-and-now. Research has shown we can teach the brain to be less reactive to incoming thoughts and messages through a mindfulness practice. We have the power to shift our attention and focus.

Here are some ways to help you cultivate the art of being present:

The 5 Senses

Stay in the present moment by paying attention to the five senses while doing a daily activity. Pick one activity a day to start. For example, when you are making a dish for dinner, maintain focus on the present activity by narrowing in on tactile senses while preparing the ingredients. Gradually tune your awareness to the other senses, one by one, keeping your focus and attention on your food.

Unplug from Technology

Make your time with others be just that: time with others. This means not using your cell phone, for example. Actively listen and engage with those around you.


Learn a mantra, or affirmation statement, to help guide your thoughts along. One mantra that is easy to learn is “Let – Go.” During the inhale, say to yourself, “Let,” and on the exhale, internally speak, “Go.” You can repeat this mantra as many times as you like to calm the constant barrage of thoughts and settle into your present moment.


Physical activities release feel-good chemicals (endorphins) and can be a great place to hone your focus. Draw your attention to your body; the muscles and bones that help assist you on your walk.

Breathing Exercises

Taking in a deep inhale, with a brief pause, then a long exhale does wonders. You may choose to extend your exhale to twice the count of your inhale. There are many breathing techniques, so be sure to find one that works for you. Connecting your breath with movement is a nice way to stay in the present.


Take a walk outside. Water your plants. Simply just being outside and opening up your senses to your surroundings can ground you in the present moment.

When we are truly present, there is little to no suffering. Generally speaking, our suffering stems from sadness about the past or anxiety about the future. The good news is practicing mindfulness and staying in the present moment has a strong correlation to happiness. That’s a strong argument to being more present in your daily life activities. Try it and see for yourself, using yourself as the primary participant in your happiness study.

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