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If You’re Not Happy Where You Are, Where’s Your Mind?

States of mind

As human beings, we have a unique ability: to project ourselves into a future situation, memory, or even an imagined situation, so that we almost feel like we’re there. We can close our eyes and picture being somewhere else, some time else, even someone else. And this can be very handy–or, depending on the situation, it can make life miserable and tedious.

What’s wrong with daydreaming?
The danger of daydreaming about somewhere else we’d like to be is that it tends to make it very difficult to connect constructively with the time and place we’re currently in. For instance, if I’m out mowing the lawn and can only think of going swimming when I’m done, I’m naturally going to tend to be impatient and dissatisfied with what I’m currently doing. While I’m not suggesting that the swimming won’t be nice, nor even that an occasional thought about swimming can make lawn mowing more enjoyable, what I am suggesting is that focusing on swimming for any period of time is likely to make the lawn work feel unpleasant.

You may respond that mowing the lawn is unpleasant–which can be true, but only when we maintain thought patterns reinforcing that feeling. We can experience things as unpleasant automatically just as we’re experiencing a new stimulus, but long-term negative emotions are usually maintained my mental loops: see “How emotions work.”

Getting more happiness right here, right now
Because thinking about wanting to be in another place or at another time tends to make us unhappy with where and when we really are, the most effective way to become happier in those situations–when you’re watching the clock for the end of the work day, or stuck in traffic and wanting to get home, or having financial problems and picturing a wealthier future–is to let go of the daydream and come back to the present. Once in the present, the thing to do is to find something absorbing about that present–a challenging task, an engrossing conversation, or a way to relax–that makes being then and there rewarding. True, burning through a stack of paperwork at the office is unlikely to be as rewarding as playing with the kids at home, but it will tend to beat the pants off sitting there and not getting that paperwork done while becoming progressively more miserable about being stuck there.

Useful daydreams and not-so-useful daydreams
There’s such a thing as constructive daydreaming, a practice that helps you connect with what’s rewarding about your goals, but the difference between this and get-me-out-of-this-moment daydreaming is that constructive daydreaming is a brief visit to something you hope to accomplish, not an extended retreat from what you probably would be best off doing right now.

The essential question boils down to this: what is there about where you are right now and what you feel would be best to be doing right now that can engage, excite, or fulfill you? Find that thing and seize on it, and the hours will pass much more quickly and happily than they would trying to be someplace you aren’t.

Photo by akeg

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