A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind

A study published in 2010 by researchers from Harvard University, revealed that a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Philosophical and religious traditions expound that being in the present moment results in happiness and peace.  Killingworth & Gilbert conducted a real-time study of people’s level of happiness and determining whether their mind was wandering and what activity they were doing at that moment.

Participants volunteered for the study by signing up at www.trackyourhappiness.org. Demographic information was collected including information about their sleep awake cycle. The methodology used in the study was “experience sampling” and is the gold standard for investigating real-time emotion.  Information was collected of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings and actions from a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. Participants were contacted at random times via text message via their phone during their waking hours.  The database has over quarter million samples from 5000 people from 83 countries age ranging from 18 to 88.

People were asked the following questions:

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

The study revealed that people’s minds wandered frequently regardless of what they were doing. Mind wandering occurred in 46.9 % of the samples and in at least 30% of the samples taken during every activity except making love.

Frequency of mind wandering was higher than seen in laboratory experiments.  Surprisingly the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered.

Statistical analysis (multilevel regression) revealed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and this was true during all activities although peoples minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (42.5% of samples) than to unpleasant topics (26.5%), or neutral topics (31%). People were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than about their current activity and were considerably unhappier when thinking about neutral topics or unpleasant topics than about their current activity.

Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering was generally the cause and not merely the consequences of unhappiness. What people were thinking was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

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