The USA is largely a goal-oriented society that values results more than the struggle or process to attain them. This is somewhat of a departure from many of the other cultures I’ve been blessed to live amongst.
In light of this, much of our time as Americans is spent planning for and envisioning the future. As a result, unfortunately we often are fooled into believing that certain conditions need to be met to be truly happy—if I could just have x amount of money, land that dream job, etc, I would feel complete.
However, as most of us know, when those arbitrary milestones are met, we don’t end up feeling accomplished, at least not long-term. There is almost always a desire for more—bigger and better is the American way.
In contrast, what I’ve realized by observing other cultures is that, in general, they are happy because they’re living in the moment. Individuals can find contentment in the process, rather than chasing after a desired outcome—being present to your situation, no matter how difficult, and fulfillment through a solid day’s work.
‘A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind’
I’ve mentioned briefly in the past that mind wandering is the human brain’s default mode, but haven’t really delved into the mechanisms behind it.
This condition results when the default mode network (DMN) is active, the brain’s preferential state, in which it’s not engaging in any particular task. DMN processes include thinking (daydreaming), remembering the past, and planning for the future.
In contrast, the task positive network (TPN) is active when we are immersed in a singular undertaking, i.e., in a meditative state. Any object of focus in the internal or external environment can trigger this brain state—reading, bird-watching, brushing your teeth, breath meditation, etc. The sole prerequisite is that one partakes in these activities with the whole of their attention.
When functioning, the TPN silences mental chatter, allowing internal peace and helping us be more present. It can be likened to the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) branch of the central nervous system, in contrast to the flight-or-flight (sympathetic) component that works in tandem with the DMN.
The DMN tends to be the natural condition of the mind—research suggests that, on average, humans spend 47% of their waking hours lost in thought. Unfortunately, these finding also show this tendency has ramifications on emotional wellbeing.
A study by Harvard University researchers published in the magazine Science, revealed that, “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.”
The researchers estimated that 4.6% of an individual’s happiness can be attributed to their undertaking, whereas their mental presence accounts for nearly 11%. The gold nugget here is that we have greater emotional affliction when the mind is disengaged than when it is focused, regardless of the object of attention.
Escapism is mental distraction from the typical demands of life. And while it often takes the form of entertainment, daydreaming and even “busy work” in some instances can also be viewed as a type of escapism if used to shirk your innate duties.
Generally speaking, USA-ans are fooled into believing the more they can cram into a day, the more accomplished and fulfilled they will feel, which, based on the above evidence, is hokum. It’s really about doing more with less—tackling the truly crucial things, and making them count by dedicating all of your energy to them.
Often, the productivity mindset is synonymous with the DMN’s wandering, monkey mind. When concerned solely with efficiency, chances are, ironically, you’re multitasking like a mofo. And even if you’re hyper-focused on a singular undertaking, it doesn’t mean your fully immersed in (present to) it, i.e., in the flow state.
Intense and exclusive concentration prevents awareness of the other aspects of your present experience, which is what the flow state (or wu wei) is all about—effortless action in conjunction with all the components of your environment.
Even while living in Latin America, I was beholden to the American custom of productivity. Each day, I set out to work x number of hours editing, or filled my to-do list with things I thought would bring me closer to my desired outcome—the now-turbid vision I had nearly lost all sight of.
The ironic thing is that I thought staying busy was making me feel accomplished, and giving me a sense of purpose. But in reality, it was a way for me to avoid confronting my strife and examining why I felt incomplete.
I was “working” on the things that were my daily concerns (material comforts), instead of focusing on the ultimate concern—living by my morals and building that which gives me a sense of purpose.
My issue with the productivity mindset was that I began to trick myself into believing I was cultivating the self, largely because I was staying occupied. But in truth, I was diverging further from the path I set out on; the one with roadblocks I didn’t used to mind overcoming, instead of trying to escape from.
When times are challenging, action only improves the situation when it is deliberate—and the path of least resistance is found through stillness and looking inside (reflecting). Multitasking and running around like a chicken with your head cut off will not provide a sense of life improving, a sense of control, or satisfaction.
Nor will envisioning all the conditions of your life arranged in such a way that makes you feel whole. The process and pursuit of a vision consumes the vast majority of life—reaching the finish line is only a sliver of existence.
That’s why it’s so crucial to enjoy the journey and be present to it. Daydreaming your life away will almost certainly bring discontentment, even if you are progressing towards your objective.
As mindfulness meditation expert Sam Harris once said, “Even if we’re guarding our time to do the things that are most important to us, we can spend all of that time regretting the past, or anxiously expecting the future, basically just dancing over the present and never making contact with it.”
The Joy of the Present Moment
A few years back, I stayed several days in the home of a tight-knit family a couple hours north of Oaxaca city. What was most astounding to me was how much joy each family member had, despite how many chores that had that day or how rough their living situation appeared (to an American).
They were thrilled to just be in each other’s company, taking each moment at a time.
Each day I get to witness it is a blessing. A constant reminder to slow down, become aware of my present environment, and be grateful for whatever I have. Which sometimes, is just being witness to the awe of life and the cosmos.