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Want to Be Happier? Pay Attention!

Harvard researchers have found that what matters more is notpeople are doing but rather the degree of attention that they are bringing to what they are doing.
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The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is well known for asking his students, "Why do you wash the dishes?"

If you think it is to get the dishes clean, you are mistaken.

The reason to wash the dishes is... to wash the dishes. It is to be fully involved with the act. You do it for the beauty of the act itself, not for a particular result.

Researchers are slowly coming to the same conclusion. Harvard researchers, in a study of over 2,200 people, asked them how they were doing at various random times. The researchers found, as reported in The New York Times, that what mattered more was not what people were doing but rather the degree of attention that they were bringing to what they were doing. According to the article, "Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing."

The old way is to think that to have one's body sitting on a beach in the Bahamas is much better than having it sit in rush-hour traffic in New York City. And while there may be some truth to the fact that is easier to pay full attention while in a relaxed environment, according to the researchers, "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."

But where is our attention most of the day? It is generally lost in thought. According to the researchers, "On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time." But we do not need researchers to tell us that our mind wanders just about all the time; we can watch and see for ourselves. As Eckhart Tolle has said, "Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease."

And now we have all kinds of gadgets that, essentially, help us stay in our minds, disconnected from our body and actual experience in a given moment. Walk down the street of any major city and most people are essentially "somewhere else," either because they are on their phone or are daydreaming about some future moment or reliving a past one. This moment, the one we are living now, is so often missed.

We have become a society caught in Doing, and disconnected from what we may call Presence or Being. As Ram Dass used to say, "We become Human Doings instead of Human Beings."

How do we connect with Being? For Eckhart Tolle and others, one simple way is to "focus your attention away from thinking and direct it into the body, where Being can be felt."

Even now, reading these words, can you bring attention to your body and see thoughts arise and pass without riding the train of associated thoughts that take you away from this moment?

Try this: for this day, whenever you notice your mind wandering, invite attention back into your body. Focus less on Doing and more on Being, and see if the actions you do take more often come from that place of ease and focus, what in sports they like to call "the zone." Prioritize not what you are doing as much as the quality of attention you bring to what you are doing, as if what you are doing right now deserves your full attention.

Soren Gordhamer is the author of "Wisdom 2.0" and organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conferences, which unites staff from technology companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook with individuals from wisdom traditions to explore living with deeper purpose, presence and wisdom in our modern lives. More information can be found at

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