Distraction vs. Happiness

How skilled are you at multitasking? Many of us think we’re pretty good at it, but truth be told, the human mind is not wired to multitask. What we call multitasking is actually a shifting of our focus from one task to another, like channel surfing on your TV. It’s simply not possible to receive two different broadcasts at once. (Remember the “picture-in-picture” feature on TVs? Not a great success.) This ability to shift our focus can vary significantly from person to person, or even upon how rested we are, how well nourished, or how upset or unsettled we feel at any moment.

It’s not just adults that are expected to multitask in today’s fast-paced world. From an early age, more and more children are expected to multitask. And modern culture encourages having lots of stimuli going all at once: eating a snack, listening to music, TV on in the background, all while surfing (with multiple tabs open in our browser) or gaming, with plenty of text messages coming in. Is this a good thing or are there downsides?

Interestingly, according to an article​ I’ve shared in a past blog,​ published by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert back in 2011, multitasking can be a significant source of unhappiness.

The broad conclusion of this study is that the more absorbed we are able to become in whatever our current activity might be, the happier we are. ​This is the very antithesis of multitasking! ​When our mind and thereby our attention wanders away from whatever we are doing, we become unhappy.​ To put it another way, distraction contributes to unhappiness.

In contrast, do you remember the last time you were lost in the moment? Getting lost in the moment can be described as being so immersed in something, usually something enjoyable, that you completely lose track of all time. Distractions ebb away, as do all other concerns. Everything else in your life is put tacitly on hold. If you’re an adult, especially a middle-aged-or-more adult, chances are those lost-in-time moments are few and far between. I have to admit that most of my memories of being lost in the moment are from childhood. What I remember most from those years is how much I loved art. I remember the total happy absorption I would feel as I immersed myself in my crayon drawings, completely unaware of the passage of time. Life was good.

But as we grow up, we have more and more on our mind. It gets much harder to be able to step away from worries, concerns, and frustrations, and once again address a current activity with total, undivided focus. Losing ourselves in the moment may even begin to feel like a selfish indulgence since we have so many responsibilities.

Killingsworth is quoted as saying, “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, is a big player in our distracted society. We’re so afraid we’re going to miss something, whether it’s the best deal on sneakers, someone’s vacation pics on Instagram, or the latest kooky video on Snapchat, that we scurry around on our devices failing to see what’s right in front of us in the real world. FOMO makes us miss out, in real life, from the beauty of a sunset, the feel of the breeze on our skin, the music of birdsong or the patter of raindrops, the joy and satisfaction of finishing projects, and most importantly, human connection.

Distracted Child small

Children have an amazing ability to lose themselves in the present moment, to give their entire attention to whatever they are doing without worrying or thinking about other aspects of their life, and as adults, we could benefit from their example. I’m not saying that all children do this all the time, but they certainly have the ability to do it.

You’ve likely seen your son or daughter caught up in building something or drawing something or inventing something. Maybe their brow is furrowed with concentration. Perhaps they are holding their mouth in that certain way they do, the tip of their tongue peeking out. Or they are in the yard, running joyfully after a firefly or a butterfly, shrieking with delight.

If you have kids, take advantage of their example in this regard. Take some time to get down on the floor and play with them, read with them, talk with them, lose yourself in the moment with them…even if it’s just for a moment. Of course, your kids will enjoy it too!

Father Daughter Time small

If you find yourself feeling unsettled or dissatisfied with life, take a moment and get out of your head, and into your body. What’s going on around you right this minute? Can you feel a breeze, even if it’s from air conditioning? What sounds do you hear? Notice how your body feels sitting in your chair. Focus on your breath: the tide of your breath goes in and out, just like ocean waves. Breath has a sound, and by closing your eyes and focusing on the sound of your inhale, and then the exhale, the peacefulness of that tidal effect becomes palpable. Do you have a hobby? Carve out some time to immerse yourself in tasks that are enjoyable and engaging.

Interestingly, the aforementioned study found that one of the activities that make people happiest is having conversations. We can all learn to make more of an effort when we are around people we care about: put away the phone/tablet, and share experiences together. It matters.

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  1. Sinclair Sherrill says:


    Great article!

  2. Lynne Holder says:

    Well, since I have the attention span of a mosquito, I probably get a “D” in multi-tasking. How are you two? I’m fine- retired from my law practice now. I probably told you that already, but it is my mind I miss the most…. Pretty much recovered from 2017 open heart surgery- back to all activities except practicing law. Bad doo doo for stress, etc. I have CRS- “can’t remember $hi7”… Ron also fine, as is our herd of critters, which continues to grow. Hope you two are well! My best, Lynne (Holder) and Dart, of course. P.S. I have a collared dove now. Rescued him when about 4 days old. He is about 6 or 8 weeks old at present. Just ordered aviary for porch and will get him a companion once he is moved in to new digs. He is very sweet and still thinks I am his mom. When I “smoochy” at him, he tries to stick his beak in my mouth like he would his momma and daddy to feed! He has stolen my heart, of course!

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10 ..

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      Hi, Lynne, it’s so good to hear from you! Glad you and Ron are doing well, recovering, and adjusting to retirement. It’s lovely to hear you have all the menagerie around you, and that you’ve got a new avian friend! He sounds delightful. Send us pics when you can, and we’d love to see you guys when it’s convenient.

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