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Memo to the Mind: Don’t Wander, Be Happy

New research finds our minds wander much more frequently than we realize, and our inability to stay focused in the present leads to unhappiness.
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Is your mind wandering right now? Will it begin doing so before you get to the end of this article? Newly published research by two Harvard University psychologists suggests the odds are close to 50-50.

Using data collected from a specially designed iPhone app, the researchers — stay with me now — report we spend nearly 47 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what’s happening in front of us. Moreover, they write in the journal Science, this lack of focus tends to make us less happy.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conclude. “The ability to think about what isn’t happening is a significant cognitive achievement, but one that comes at an emotional cost.”

Their conclusions are based on in-the-moment information elicited from a Web application they developed for the Apple iPhone. This high-tech data-gathering technique yielded a large sample: Nearly a quarter-million responses. In the end, the researchers analyzed data from 2,250 adults (58.8 percent male, 73.9 percent U.S. residents, mean age 34).

Volunteers who signed up at the website were contacted at least once a day and asked to respond to a variety of questions about their feelings, thoughts, behavior and environment. After 50 such responses were collected from an individual, sampling stopped for six months, or until the participant requested it be reinstated.

Each time they were contacted, participants were first asked “How are you feeling right now?” They responded by answering on a sliding scale from zero (very bad) to 100 (very good).

They were then asked, “What are you doing right now?” and “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” If they answered yes, they were asked if the focus of their thoughts was something pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

“People’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing,” the researchers report. “Mind-wandering occurred in 46.9 percent of the samples, and in at least 30 percent of the samples taken during every activity except making love.

“The frequency of mind-wandering in our real-world sample was considerably higher than is typically seen in laboratory experiments,” they note. “Surprisingly, the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered.”

So, where was I? Oh, yes: Happiness. “People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “This was true during all activities, including the least enjoyable.

“Although people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics … 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.”

Now, if you’re thinking about chickens and eggs (no, I don’t mean looking ahead to tonight’s dinner — focus!!), the researchers have a ready response.

“Time-lag analyses strongly suggests that mind-wandering in our sample was generally the cause — and not merely the consequence — of unhappiness,” they write. “A person’s happiness was strongly related to whether they had been mind-wandering in the previous sample, but was unrelated to whether they were mind-wandering in the next sample. This is precisely what one would expect if mind-wandering caused unhappiness.”

Such findings support the insights of such spiritual teachers as Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle, who argue contentment can be found by staying fully present in the current moment. The wisdom of “be here now” is backed up by hard data.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth told the Harvard public affairs and communications office. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present, and where they tend to go, is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged."