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January 3, 2013

Slate: Do you think like Sherlock Holmes?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

If we follow Holmes' lead, if we take his admonition to not only see but also observe, and do so as a matter of course, we may not only find ourselves better able to rattle off the number of those proverbial steps in a second, but we may be surprised to discover that the benefits extend much further: We may even be happier as a result. Even brief exercises in mindfulness, for as little as five minutes a day, have been shown to shift brain activity in the frontal lobes toward a pattern associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states. And the mind-wandering, multitasking alternative? It may do more than make us less attentive. It may also make us less happy.

As Daniel Gilbert discovered after tracking thousands of participants in real time, a mind that is wandering away from the present moment is a mind that isn't happy. He developed an iPhone app that would prompt subjects to answer questions on what they were currently doing and what they were thinking about at various points in the day. In 46.9 percent of samples Gilbert and his colleagues collected, people were not thinking about whatever it was they were doing — even if what they were doing was actually quite pleasant, like listening to music or playing a game. And their happiness? The more their minds wandered, the less happy they were — regardless of the activity. As Gilbert put it in a paper in Science, "The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost."

Thinking like Sherlock Holmes isn't just a way to enhance your cognitive powers. It is also a way to derive greater happiness and satisfaction from life.

Konnikova is the author of "Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes." Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. She lives in New York City.

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