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Our thoughts inform our inner life and those thoughts affect how we view our circumstances, situations, relationships, and the larger world. Often, they can cloud our perspective and affect our mood. Furthermore, our minds wander quite frequently. For most of us, we aren’t even aware of it. Scientists at the leading universities are studying the effect of “the wandering mind” on our mood and our happiness, in particular. The point is that when we pay attention to where our mind is while we are doing something, we can assess our level of happiness. For most of us, when our mind wanders, we are less happy. When our mind is focused on what we are doing, we are happier. A much-touted study entitled A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind helps us to understand the importance of recognizing exactly where our mind is. By noticing where our mind is (focused on the task or on something else?) we can begin to develop awareness and improve our overall well-being.
Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, is also interested in the impact of our thoughts on our well-being. He reminds us that well-being is a skill that can be developed with attention and practice. His four pillars of well-being are awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. He underscores the benefits of being aware of our wandering mind so that we can become less distracted. Insight, one of his four pillars, specifically relates to our sense of self. Beliefs about ourselves (often echoed inside our minds in a self-critical voice) can contribute to loneliness and depression. Even before COVID-19, depression, loneliness, and suicides were on the rise and the presence of COVID has contributed to the increase. Insight can help us understand the “story” we tell ourselves. With awareness and insight, we can appreciate the context and the contributors to the development of that story. Then we may be more open to noticing how our story shapes the relationship we have with ourselves, others, and the world. When we feel compassion for the person in our story (ourselves) we can open up to recognize that it is our thoughts that determine our mood and outlook. That recognition impacts our choices and behaviors.
Quickly-passing thoughts consistently flow through our minds. We may not even realize that we are thinking them, yet we can get lost in them. Without awareness, we find ourselves following a train of thought without realizing that we had even boarded the train! And we can do this multiple times in a short period. This is what the mind does. It is normal. This is the reason that paying attention to our thoughts is so important. Rather than being unmindful, we can be mindful.
These unnoticed thoughts can trigger different emotions. As a result of a particular thought, we will have an emotional response. We can feel sad, excited, or anxious. We might not even notice that this is happening. But despite that, these unnoticed thoughts are powerful and create an inner mental environment that can hijack our emotional state, affecting our attitudes, and influencing our actions. And much like following a well-trodden trail, our ongoing thoughts set our emotions into a regular groove.
We are usually the central character in these thoughts. We think about a memory or an experience that we had or may anticipate having, construct a story around it, and before we know it, we are in the rabbit hole.
We can begin by becoming aware of our attitudes and actions, and focus on expressing concern for others. When we notice changes in behavior, mood, attitude, we can acknowledge the change without judgement and perhaps seek to understand what is going on. We can reach out to people and reassure them that they are not alone, especially during tough times of isolation and fear. Regular ZOOM or virtual calls, text messages, and phone calls on a regular basis can provide a touchstone for many.