“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Some years ago, a friend told me that his marriage was suffering because he was on the road so much for work. I started counseling him on how to fix things—to move more meetings online, to make do with less money. But no matter what I suggested, he always had a counterargument for why it was impossible. Finally, it dawned on me: His issue wasn’t a logistics or work-management problem. It was a home problem. As he ultimately acknowledged, he didn’t like being there, but he was unwilling to confront the real source of his troubles.
Many of us, even if we don’t travel for work, do something similar by avoiding spending time in the home of our own mind. If being fully present—or in the parlance of modern meditators, being mindful—is boring, or stressful, or sad, or scary, you’re not going to want to do it very much. You can have a more pleasant time being psychologically out of town, as it were.
But you should work to be more mindful anyway. As I told my friend, he’d be better off facing the problems in his marriage and trying to solve them, rather than living in a hotel off the interstate five days a week. Similarly, avoiding mindfulness will make the feelings you are avoiding worse, not better. Dealing with them is a more rewarding, if perhaps more daunting, strategy.
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You don’t have to be a follower of Eastern philosophy to know that mindfulness is all the rage. Across dozens of apps and websites, you can learn the latest techniques. Meanwhile, research finds that it may be a remedy for many personal problems: It has been shown to lessen depression, lower anxiety, improve memory, and decrease back pain. It can even raise GRE scores. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that mindfulness can help me grow my hair back.
If mindfulness is so great, then, why aren’t all of us practicing it every day? Why are we still spending our time romanticizing or regretting the past and anticipating the future? I think the answer is that mindfulness is not very natural, and actually quite hard. Many psychologists believe that as a species, humans are not evolved to enjoy the here and now. Rather, we are wired to time-travel mentally, mostly into the future, to consider new scenarios and try out new ideas. The social psychologist Martin Seligman goes so far as to call our species Homo prospectus.
But avoiding mindfulness can also be an effective way to distract yourself from pain. In 2009, four researchers writing in the journal Emotion showed that people’s minds are significantly more likely to wander when they’re in a negative mood than when they’re in a positive mood. Some sources of unhappiness that lead to distraction and mind-wandering are: fear, anxiety, neuroticism, and of course, boredom. Having a negative self-perception—feeling ashamed of oneself, for example—is also likely to lead to distraction from the here and now. Scholars writing in Europe’s Journal of Psychology showed in 2019 that people who suffered from a lot of shame tended to mind-wander considerably more than those who did not.
Neuroscience gives us clues as to why we escape to the future or past. A good deal of evidence shows that mind-wandering decreases activity in the brain regions that involve the processing of physical pain. Researchers have long known that social pain is processed by many of the same regions as physical pain; it stands to reason, then, that avoiding mindfulness is a self-defense strategy for those suffering mentally.
If you have struggled with mindfulness, two underlying problems might be to blame: You don’t know how to be at home in your head, or you do know and have concluded that home is no fun. If the former is what’s stopping you, then by all means, dig into the extensive and growing technology and literature on mindfulness. You might try formal meditation or simply paying attention more to your current surroundings.
But if your problem is the latter, you need to face the source head-on. Avoiding yourself won’t work in the long run; in fact, a lot of research shows that mind-wandering to avoid emotions makes things worse, not better. In a 2010 article in Science, the psychologist Matthew A. Killingsworth and my colleague Daniel T. Gilbert found that mind-wandering to positive topics didn’t improve mood, while wandering to neutral and negative topics made people unhappier.
You might choose to take on the source of your unhappiness in the here and now with professional assistance, just as you might seek help from a counselor about a marital problem. But even openly acknowledging your uncomfortable emotions—your fear, shame, guilt, sadness, or anger—can be the beginning of the solution, insofar as it encourages you to confront your resistance to experiencing these feelings. It might be less unpleasant than you think.
Note that mindfulness is not the same thing as navel-gazing. To be here now does not mean obsessing over yourself and your problems and disregarding others. Scholars have shown that excessive self-concern can increase defensiveness and the perception of threat. Mindfulness should work instead toward a sense of yourself as part of the wider world, and an observation of your emotions without judgment. As you work to focus on the present, remind yourself of two things: You are just one of more than 7 billion human beings; and your emotions will come and go as a normal part of being alive.
There will still be times when you will be distracted—you’re only human, after all. And at times, you might even want to do so purposively. As the Tel Aviv University psychologist Gal Sheppes has shown in his research, you might choose to read a magazine while waiting at the dentist to avoid thinking about your impending root canal. The key here is that you are making an occasional choice, meaning that you are in fact managing your emotions, rather than allowing them to manage you. In this case, distraction is one tool in your emotional arsenal to be used sparingly—but mindfulness should always be your default.
Mindfulness hurts because, well, life hurts. “If our condition were truly happy, we would not need diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy,” Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, published posthumously in 1670. “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries.” Pascal never found a solution. He would probably throw up his hands and tell my unhappy friend something like “Thy melancholic fate is endless nights of solitary distraction on that long and winding road, with nary a consolation but the occasional upgrade at the Courtyard by Marriott.”
But my friend could do better—and in fact, he did. It was painful at the beginning, but he confronted the problems at home and he and his wife are finding a path forward together. It’s a work in progress, but they’re both a lot happier. And you can get the same kind of benefit, by leaning in mindfully, not seeking escape in distraction. You may not want to, but you should come home anyway, and take on your pain.