Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The iPhone way of happiness

Humans spend a lot of time thinking about stuff other than the activity they are currently engaged in, such as things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, or things that might never happen at all. Psychologists call this "stimulus-independent thought" or "mind wandering." I reckon it's what the rest of us call day dreaming. Presumably, it's this capacity of the human mind to wander that enables us to learn, reason and plan.

But does it make us happy? Is living in the moment the secret of bliss, as some gurus tell us? Or does fantasizing a happy scenario make us happier than focusing on the task at hand, say, peeling the potatoes?

As reported in the 12 November issue of Science, a couple of Harvard researchers set out to answer to these questions. They devised an iPhone app that calls people at random moments during normal waking hours, asks what they are doing, whether their mind is wandering, and how happy they are at the moment. The researchers have compiled quite a large data base. The results are represented in the following graph of mean happiness during each activity (top) and while the mind is wandering to unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant topics, or not wandering at all (bottom). The size of the circle indicates the percentage of responses. Click to enlarge.

As I read the graph, daydreaming gets you nowhere as far as happiness is concerned, and working is the pits. Peeling the potatoes is so-so; eating them is better. Praying doesn't take up much of people's time, but it makes them marginally happier. Chatting and jogging brings cheer to your life. Making love is far and away the road to bliss.

The lesson of the research? Stop your daydreaming, and whatever else you are doing -- blogging, reading blogs, eating or sleeping. Whisper sweet nothings in your honey's ear and show him/her this graph. Maybe you'll get lucky.

And hope the phone doesn't ring.