How to Be Happy While Studying a Language

A couple of Harvard psychologists were sitting around playing with their iPhones when one of them had this idea. “I wonder if we could write an iPhone app that would ask people at random times what they are doing, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling?”

Well, they wrote the app, got several thousand people to use it, and the result was … the happiest people in the world are having sex.

Ninety percent of them were intensely focused on what they were doing … perhaps the rest of them were thinking about paying their bills.

The big surprise to the Harvard psychologists was that people are always happier when they are focused intently on what they are doing.

When your mind wanders, it usually leads to unhappiness.

How Language Students Can Use This

If you want to be happy while you are studying a language, simply focus intently on it. When your mind wanders — and it will — just take a deep breath and pull your attention back to what you are studying.

Don’t fight your wandering mind; just gently notice it and pull your attention back to your language study.

The New York Times wrote about it. You can read an excerpt by clicking on (more…) below.


A quick experiment. Before proceeding to the next paragraph, let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. Close your eyes for a few seconds, starting … now.

And now, welcome back for the hypothesis of our experiment: Wherever your mind went — the South Seas, your job, your lunch, your unpaid bills — that daydreaming is not likely to make you as happy as focusing intensely on the rest of this column will.

I’m not sure I believe this prediction, but I can assure you it is based on an enormous amount of daydreaming cataloged in the current issue of Science. Using an iPhone app called trackyourhappiness, psychologists at Harvard contacted people around the world at random intervals to ask how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking.

The least surprising finding, based on a quarter-million responses from more than 2,200 people, was that the happiest people in the world were the ones in the midst of enjoying sex. Or at least they were enjoying it until the iPhone interrupted.

The researchers are not sure how many of them stopped to pick up the phone and how many waited until afterward to respond. Nor, unfortunately, is there any way to gauge what thoughts — happy, unhappy, murderous — went through their partners’ minds when they tried to resume.

When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being “very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time. That figure surprised the researchers, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.

“I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

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