Want to be Happier? Take Back Your Attention
We spend nearly half of every day, not actually IN the moment, but lost in our thoughts, memories, daydreams, or rumination about the past or future.
When we do this, it activates our default network, a group of areas within our brain that function much like a computer’s screensaver. The default network makes us appear to be “here,” when in actuality we’re really not, instead lost in a memory from 2014 or tonight’s dinner plans.
In some ways this “screensaver mode” is super cool. It allows humans to metaphorically time travel and provides us with loads of instant entertainment. We’re apparently one of only a few species who use our brains this way.
However, there’s a downside to this feature too. Spending a lot of time in screensaver mode, letting our brain wander has been scientifically shown to make us less happy.
Wake up, darlin’. Your life is calling.
While our species will always be prone to mind wandering, it’s important to also intentionally wake up our brain throughout the day. This will enable us to be both more productive and happier.
Three strategies can help us do that.
- Meditate regularly, helping train your brain to wander less and spend more time in the moment.
- Spend more time in a flow state (sometimes also called “being in the zone”) doing activities that are challenging enough to keep your mind engaged, but also easy enough that you’re able to get lost in the work.
- Spend less time on social media
Social media delights our default.
While it would appear that social media, with its constantly refreshing real time updates, is all about “living in the now,” that’s not actually the case.
Social media has been designed to not only engage, but absolutely delight our brain’s default network, encouraging our mind wandering. Yes, sometimes that wandering results in us having new insights, but often it just leads to even more wandering.
Think I’m wrong? Take a moment and consider how many times you’ve…
- …looked at someone’s post and then drifted into thoughts about your past, (e.g. “His son turned 16 today? Wow, the last time I saw him, he was practically a baby! When was that? 2015?”)
- …looked at someone’s post and then drifted into thoughts about the future, (e.g. “Look at that new kitchen! We should remodel too. What would I change first? Probably the stove…”)
- …looked at someone’s post and then drifted into rumination, (e.g. “Ugh. Look at how amazing she looks. I should really start working out. Why did I let myself get so out of shape?”)
- …looked at someone’s post and then drifted into daydreams, (e.g. “Man, if I had a beach house, I’d go swimming in the ocean each morning…”)
- …lost time while hanging out on social media (i.e. You check it “just for a sec,” then look up and 30 minutes have passed) ignoring real time needs like eating, sleeping, or using the bathroom.
- …been encouraged to go off down a rabbit hole searching for contextual information on something you just saw posted, (i.e. scrolling through Internet history to understand something in the present.)
In all of those moments, you weren’t living in the now, you were off on a default network quest. Yes, those quests might have felt cool or fun, but they were still largely imaginary “screensaver brain” ones.
While mind wandering with your default network feels soothing and relaxing in the moment, it’s also pretty much the opposite of a mediative or flow state. It’s also the opposite of what will ultimately provide you with a deep sense of fulfillment or happiness.
And this perhaps the most insidious feature of social media: it capitalizes on this quirk of the human brain, amplifies it, and then exploits it for a profit, eating away at your happiness while you’re using the platforms to ostensibly find more of it.
So, if you’re reading this right now, I encourage you to stop…
Feel your breath…
Consider this as a calling from deep inside you: it’s time to wake up and take back your attention.
(Photo by Phil Riggins on Unsplash)