What doesn’t cost a thing or take much time, but could make you a lot happier?



What’s something you could add to your life right now to boost your happiness? It's quick and simple. It doesn’t cost a dime. And you can do it just about anywhere.

The answer? Meditation.

You don’t have to be a monk high in the Himalayas to feel the impact. You don’t even need experience: as long as you are a human being with a mind, you can benefit.

Meditation calms the brain’s impulse to mind wander, as psychologists call it, and brings us back to the present. This is important because our brains veer off track often. According to a study by Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, we are not really present for 47% of our waking lives. Instead, we're out mind wandering!

When you mind wander, you think about everything other than the present moment. You rehash the past, worry about the future, and wonder what others are thinking. I should have said that! Why didn't she call back? What will I make for dinner? What does he think of me? That's mind wandering.

In a way, mind wandering is a useful mental trick: it can be a chance to contemplate and consolidate the bigger picture and make sense of your life. It’s a sort of automatic time for reflection, and it can lead to unexpected insights and even wisdom. 

BUT. And there’s a very big but here…

Most of the time, mind wandering does not make us happy. When Gilbert and Killingsworth sampled over 2,000 people at random points in the day, they discovered it had a negative impact, concluding that, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

On the other hand, actively turning off our mind-wandering mode—which we can reliably do with meditation—makes us feel happier and more connected to others.

Yale professor Hedy Kober found that regular meditators actually changed their thinking patterns, decreasing the mind-wandering that usually plagues our brains. Interestingly, the benefits of meditation aren't limited to the time people spend meditating, but actually alter how our minds function in everyday life. Even a brief meditation session can have an outsized impact on the rest of your day. (To learn more, check out professor Kober’s TEDx Talk.)

Other studies have uncovered similar benefits. For example, during an 8-week study, Barbara Frederickson and colleagues showed that even novice meditators reported more positive emotions over time, and not just during meditation sessions. And another study from Stanford University showed how specific types of meditation (in this case, loving-kindness meditation) can increase feelings of social closeness with others, another important indicator of happiness.

The takeaway? When you meditate, you get mental and social benefits that dwarf the time you actually spend doing it. Invest a few minutes in your mind each day, and it can transform the quality of your waking life. 

If you don’t know where to begin, check out apps like Headspace or Calm for easy and downloadable directed sessions. I also highly recommend yoga classes where meditation is built into the practice.

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