Matt Killingsworth: Are We Happier When We Stay In The Moment? Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, that let people report feelings in real time.

Are We Happier When We Stay In The Moment?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Later in the show, Dan Gilbert will be back to explain why we are all actually hardwired to be happy. But first, could the key to happiness be through science?

MATT KILLINGSWORTH: Most of what we know about happiness is, you know, what a scientist might call correlational research.

RAZ: Matt Killingsworth is a scientist who...

KILLINGSWORTH: Studies the causes and nature of human happiness.

RAZ: Like, why are we happy at particular moments and unhappy at other ones? Well, to study that question, you've got to ask lots of people how they're feeling.

KILLINGSWORTH: We can look at to what extent - are richer people happier, are people with children happier, are unemployed people less happy, etc. But it's hard to know for sure what's causing what. And it's even harder to know what can people actually change and have an impact in their lives.

RAZ: You know, like, when someone asks you, how was your week, I mean, you don't think about specific things throughout your week that might've made you happy or not. And why...

KILLINGSWORTH: The kinds of happiness that you feel when you are interacting with your kids might be very different than the kind of happiness you experience when you're eating a great dinner.

RAZ: And scientists, obviously, can't be with you all the time to know the difference. So about five years ago, Matt Killingsworth came up with an idea to solve this fundamental problem of happiness research - your smart phone, or specifically, an app on your smart phone.

KILLINGSWORTH: And the basic idea behind this is that we can now use technology to measure happiness in real time.

RAZ: So here's how it works. You go to, punch in your phone number. And then later, when you're, say, on the subway, you get a text.

KILLINGSWORTH: And the idea is that you want to respond as fast as you can and tell me about your experience at the instant right before you got that text message.

RAZ: And suddenly, it's like a therapist in your iPhone with some questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: First question, how do you feel right now?

RAZ: And on a sliding scale from very good to very bad, you could say, you know, about in the middle.

MAN: Next question, do you have to do what you're doing? Yes or no?

RAZ: And you're like, yep, definitely yes. And then the questions get more detailed.

MAN: To what extent are you being productive? What time did you go to sleep last night? When did you finish eating your most recent meal today?

RAZ: And then finally...

MAN: Last question, do you want to do what you're doing? Yes or no?

RAZ: And here's the moment where you think, maybe I'm not. Maybe this isn't what I want to be doing right now.

KILLINGSWORTH: I find myself, and a lot of people tell me, that you become much more aware of how happy you are, of how you spend your time of, you know, a lot of the dimensions that we measure like, you know, whether you want to be doing what you're doing.

RAZ: Anyway, more on that later. But the point is, several times a day, Matt sends these texts to thousands of people.

KILLINGSWORTH: Maybe 35,000 people who've done it.

RAZ: Wherever they are.

KILLINGSWORTH: At home or at work or in a vehicle, in a coffee shop, restaurant...

RAZ: Basically, anywhere people find themselves Matt wants to be measuring.

KILLINGSWORTH: Their happiness and details of what they're doing at that moment.

RAZ: And all this adds up to a kind of statistical survey of happiness data because what Matt is doing, he's vacuuming up all kinds of information that no one else has ever really analyzed before. And he looks for patterns.

KILLINGSWORTH: I can look across all of these dimensions of our lives - who we spend our time with, how we think about ourselves and other people, how well we sleep, how much we exercise - I mean, a tremendous number of variables.

RAZ: Variables that might be starting to add up.

KILLINGSWORTH: Over time, into an equation for happiness.

RAZ: And whether there is such a thing, that's a debate Matt took on in his TED Talk.


KILLINGSWORTH: Well, since I'm a scientist, I'd like to try to resolve this debate with some data. And in particular, I'd like to present some data to you from three questions that I asked with Track Your Happiness. Remember, this is from sort of moment-to-moment experience in people's real lives. There are three questions. The first one is a happiness question - how do you feel on a scale ranging from very bad to very good? Second, an activity question - what are you doing on a list of 22 different activities including things like eating and working and watching TV. And finally, a mind wandering question - are you thinking about something other than what you're currently doing?

People could say no. In other words, I'm focused only on my task, or yes, I am thinking about something else. And the topic of those thoughts are pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. Any of those yes responses are what we called mind wandering. So what did we find? As it turns out, people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they're not. Now you might look at this result and say, OK, sure. On average, people are less happy when they're mind wandering.

But surely, when their mind's are straying away from something that wasn't very enjoyable to begin with, at least then mind wandering should be doing something good for us. Nope. As it turns out, people are less happy when they're mind wandering no matter what they're doing. For example, people don't really like commuting to work very much. It's one of their least enjoyable activities. And yet, they are substantially happier when they're focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else. It's amazing.

So how could this be happening? I think part of the reason, a big part of the reason, is that when our minds wander, we often think about unpleasant things. And they are enormously less happy when they do that - our worries, our anxieties, our regrets. Forty-seven percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they're currently doing. Ranging from a high of 65 percent when people are taking a shower, brushing their teeth to 50 percent when they're working to 40 percent when they're exercising, all the way down to this one short bar on the right that I think some of you are probably laughing at. Ten percent of the time, people's minds are wandering when they're having sex.

But there's something I think that's quite interesting in this graph, and that is, basically, with one exception, no matter what people are doing, they're mind wandering at least 30 percent of the time, which suggests I think that mind wandering isn't just frequent, it's ubiquitous. It pervades basically everything that we do. In other words, mind wandering very likely seems to be an actual cause and not merely a consequence of unhappiness.

RAZ: And that's the single biggest determinant? Like, you can say, without question, the most consistent result we have is that when your mind wanders, you're less happy.

KILLINGSWORTH: Exactly. I think our ability to mind wander is kind of a superpower. The ability for human beings to think about something other than what they're doing allows them to plan and reason and do a lot of really amazing things that make us, you know, such a successful species.

But it's a superpower we can't really control in the sense that we use it really often for things that aren't very helpful for us. And that's one of the surprising results in my research is that when I look across all the different activities that people engage in, they are universally happier when they're fully engaged in that activity and not mind wandering no matter what they're doing.

RAZ: So when they're in the moment?

KILLINGSWORTH: When they're in the moment. Exactly.

RAZ: How do you do that? Like, how do you get to that place?

KILLINGSWORTH: That's the million-dollar question. And I don't know the answer. I think it is possible for people to redirect their attention. One thing I've certainly started doing since I've begun this research is notice where my attention is. And when I do find it straying, especially if I'm mind wandering about something that's not really productive or useful or adding to my experience, to just bring my attention back to whatever I'm doing and to do that repeatedly. And when I do that, I can not only sort of turn off mind wandering, but I think really enjoy that experience a lot more.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that's, like, science - like, what you're researching could ultimately give us a formula to find happiness?

KILLINGSWORTH: I think it can make a lot of progress. This is a question that people have been thinking about for thousands of years. And there are some recurring answers like treating other people like you would like to be treated. But at the same time, I think there are just a lot of debates that haven't really been resolved.

And it's really hard to resolve them when it's just people talking at each other. And I think that is really the power of science is to use the scientific method and collect data and figure our who's right. You know, in the same way that we've stood on the shoulders of our ancestors to understand a lot about medicine or the economy, I think we're at the start of a long but I think really exciting journey to understand a lot more about the causes of happiness.

RAZ: Matt Killingsworth, he's a researcher at UC-San Francisco. His talk on happiness is at And if you want those little happiness texts a couple times a day, checkout I got one right at the moment, and I was like, are you doing something you have to be doing right now? And I was like, yes. I'm wiping my 2-year-old's butt. And then it was like, are you doing something you want to be doing? And I was like, yeah, I guess I want to be wiping my 2-year-old's butt 'cause I get to spend time with him. More on the surprisingly simple ideas behind happiness in just a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.