The human brain is a fickle, funny thing, and I guess we should take comfort that some scientists devote their careers to researching why and when our minds wander.
The human condition hasn’t substantially changed in the century and half since Thoreau famously wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In other words, most of us are in crisis most of the time. Deadlines, bills, car repairs, knuckleheaded kids, perhaps the guilt we suffer from, as we say in church, the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone.
Researchers, on the other hand, suggest day-to-day life just isn’t very terrifying. Our ancient ancestors had to worry about being chased by a saber-toothed tiger and about where the next mastodon dinner was coming from. Their survival skill of looking ahead to anticipate crisis has become our ability to daydream and immediately project doom.
I guess my take – intuitive and probably dead wrong – goes the other way. Life’s passing parade is full of joy and triumph, tears and tragedy, and large measures of irony, but it also has enough to horrify any sane person. What’s that cliche? If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention. So a little daydreaming is an inevitable coping mechanism. That’s what they tell us, right? Go to your happy place – the beach, for instance.
The boss doesn’t want you to go to your happy place. The boss wants you to focus on the task at hand, which is what bosses are supposed to want. Now, don’t tell the boss this part, but there’s also research suggesting that an obscene number of people are spending an obscene about of work time going online to browse and shop. Good for the economy, probably good for office morale in an odd way, but not so good for office productivity. Perhaps that’s a conversation for another day.
But give the boss her due because, intentionally or not, she’s right. The daydream researchers – what a great gig – say we’re actually happiest when we’re focused on what’s right in front of us. Be in the moment, as they say.
Being in the moment, of course, has its downsides. One is that terrifying question that leaps to the front of the brain at the wrong moment: Is this all there is?
You’re up in the morning, the coffee is perking, and you’re going through the mundane tasks of getting dressed and out the door. This is when the mind wanders. The brain starts creating to-do lists, a handy but deeply annoying habit. Gotta do this, gotta do that.
Darn it. All of this tempers the simple joy of a cup of coffee and a quiet moment – the last vestige of civilization, as some of us see it – before launching into another day’s chaos.
Well, congratulations, Mr. Worrywart. You’re a human.
Reach Jeff Fox at 816-350-6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.