We are typically unhappy when our mind wanders, which apparently happens during 46.9% of our waking hours, and happiest when lovemaking, doing exercise or chatting to people, Harvard University researchers revealed in an article published today in the journal Science. While resting, using a home computer or working we tend to be least happy, the authors wrote. We are the only animals on this planet that spend a great deal of time thinking about stuff that is not occurring around us. We think about past events, potential occurrences in the future, or things that are not likely ever to happen. Some might say mind-wandering is our brain’s default mode.

Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert used an iPhone Web app to collect 250,000 data points on people’s feelings, thoughts and activities as they went about their daily lives.

The authors wrote:

    “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

The researchers randomly contacted 2,250 participants aged between 18 and 88 at intervals to find out their levels of happiness, exactly what they were up to at that moment, and whether they were focused on their activity at the time or something else that was either unpleasant, neutral or pleasant. The participants came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and occupations. 74% of them were Americans.

The iPhone app gave them 22 activities to chose from, such as watching TV, doing exercise, eating or shopping. The investigators found that people on average spend 46.9% of their time wandering. In fact, even during activities, with the exception of lovemaking, people’s minds wandered for at least 30% of the time. It appears that making love really focuses the mind.

Killingsworth, who is doing a PhD in psychology at Harvard, said:

    “Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities. This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the nonpresent.

    Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. 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.”

Our mind-wandering status accounts for approximately 10.8% of our happiness while any specific activity we are doing accounts for just 4.6%, the researchers estimated. They also concluded, via time-lag analyses, that mind-wandering caused unhappiness, rather than being a consequence of it.

They wrote:

    “Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

The iPhone Web app is called Track Your Happiness and is currently being used by over 5,000 individuals.

Abstract – “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind”
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Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert
Science 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

Written by Christian Nordqvist