Where Are Your Thoughts Taking You?- By Tsgoyna Tanzman

“I just want to be happy.”

That’s a pretty common reply to the question, “What do you want in life?”

So what is happiness? What causes it to be present and what causes it to flee?

Is the problem with Happiness that we treat it like a noun, believing Happiness is a fixed destination much like a point on a map? What if Happiness were treated like a verb, an action, and what if that action had nothing to do with the actual pursuit of happiness? What if happiness was a by-product of something else entirely?

Dr. Matt Killingsworth, a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar, who studies the nature and causes of human happiness, and is the creator of track your happiness which uses smartphones to study happiness in real-time during everyday life gave a brilliant TED talk revealing the answer and it turns out it’s not so much what you do, or what your not doing, but where your mind is wandering when you’re doing what you do.

His work is based on 50,000 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, marital statuses, etc. They represent 86 occupational categories and hail from over 80 countries.

So what did he find when he asked 3 focused questions?

How do you feel? on a scale ranging from very bad to very good.

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, they are focused only on their current activity) or yes (they are thinking about something else). We also asked if the topic of those thoughts is pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Any of those yes responses are what we called mind-wandering.

Surprisingly he found that people’s minds wander a lot. “Forty-seven percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.”

But how does mind-wandering relate to happiness?

Killingsworth found that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re focused on what they’re doing even when they’re doing something they don’t like.

And here’s something even more startling.

Killingsworth found the single factor more predictive of happiness is not how much money a person makes or whether they’re in a relationship or not, but how often his or her mind wanders. 

As a scientist he questioned if mind-wandering actually caused unhappiness, or was it the other way around? His data showed a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later. In contrast, he found no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later.

His conclusion? Mind-wandering is likely causing people to be unhappy. 

Killinsgsworth said, “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.”

We’ve all heard the mantra, Be Here Now. Stay in the Present. But what does it really mean and how do we do it?

Kabat-Zinn, a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, explains why mind wandering causes suffering and unhappiness.

“Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer. Mostly these thoughts are about the past or future. The past no longer exists. The future is just a fantasy until it happens. The one moment we actually can experience — the present moment — is the one we seem most to avoid. So in mindfulness we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. That doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the past or future, but when we do so we do so mindfully, so that we’re aware that right now we’re thinking about the past or future.”

Mindfulness is the observer state without judgment. This of course requires a great deal of practice especially given we have about 65,000 thoughts a day.

Kabat-Zinn says, “Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist.”

The promise of mindfulness is  “By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards the “anchor” of our present moment experience, we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow.”

So will you practice a bit of mindfulness, by first noticing how often your mind wanders?  Will you without judgment, corral your thoughts back to the present?

Try eating one meal with total focus on chewing, tasting, swallowing. You might only get a minute into the process. Will you drive in your car and be present with every sensation from holding the steering wheel to, feeling yourself in the seat to seeing the cars and hearing the sounds? Try focusing on the activities you don’t like and see if being present brings just a little more happiness in the moment.

Make Believe~ Make Belief Affirmation: I am training my mind to be present. Happiness is the action of being present.


About Tsgoyna Tanzman

For more than 20 years, Tsgoyna has been coaching a broad range of people, including those who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries and catastrophic life events as well as healthy, smart, successful people who’ve been derailed or feel stuck. She likes to say, “You don’t have to have a brain injury to damage your brain, we do that with our limiting thoughts and negative beliefs.” Tsgoyna is an expert at helping women learn to coach themselves, so they can redefine and recreate their lives from an integrated, empowered and joyful state. She teaches women the tools and strategies to separate circumstances from thoughts & feelings, while gaining insight and choice into the actions they take. She supports women in releasing emotional baggage and limiting beliefs, setting goals and taking action to achieve them. Tsgoyna knows about addiction, codependence, alcoholism and the daily process of working a program as her husband is celebrating 25 years of sobriety since the intervention she arranged. Tsgoyna is a Speech/Language Pathologist, MA/CCC, Certified Life Coach, Mental Emotional Release® Therapist, Master Practitioner of Neurolinguistic Programming and a Certified Hypnotherapist. Additionally, she achieved a Level II certification in E.F.T (Emotional Freedom Technique). She has also been guest writer with 9 published pieces at the online magazine MORE.COM as well as having 15 stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul ( in 15 different anthologies).
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  1. Thanks for sharing so honestly, Alana! Your insight is valuable–that’s where your focus was. Good for you for willingly looking at your thoughts. Mindfulness is about observing without judgment. That takes practice! 🙂 You might check out trackyourhappiness.org . Best to you.

  2. Tsgoyana, what a great piece! Really spoke to me today about dragging my little mind back to the present. I was shocked at the stat’s from the Killingsworth study, but it makes perfect sense. I had an “off” day yesterday. Seriously “off” I could not focus on a thing, was completely unproductive but the most profound thing was how miserable I was about it. Thanks for a great article. I am focused and present today and will affirm myself to stay that way!

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