The Perils of a Wandering Mind

Does a wandering mind make you less happy than a present mind? This question formed the basis of an important study by psychologists from Harvard University. The answer, I wasn’t surprised to find, is yes. Absolutely.


Good morning. How are you feeling right now? Like, on a scale of 0 (very bad), to 100 (very good), where would you be? 75? 90? 20? Thanks for letting me know. Now, would you mind telling me what you’re doing right now? Interesting. Just one more question. Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

The above three questions, minus the intervening banter, were asked at random intervals during the day of over 2200 adults. Their iPhone would alert them to the questions. They’d answer. And then, they’d get back to whatever it was they were doing.

How does a wandering mind affect happiness?

This simple design formed the basis of an important study by psychologists from Harvard University who were looking to answer one central question: Are all of the philosophical and religious traditions that teach us to be “in the moment,” or in other words, that encourage mindfulness in everything we do, correct in doing so? Or flipped the other way: Does a wandering mind make you less happy than a present mind?

The answer, I wasn’t surprised to find, is yes. Absolutely.

First of all, the researchers found that people think about something other than what they’re doing about as often as they think about what they are doing – 46.9% of the time. Not only that, but what they are actually doing doesn’t seem to make a difference; minds wander about equally in all of the 22 surveyed activities (with one exception: making love. At least there’s that!).  And finally, the crucial point: people are less happy, no matter the activity, when their mind is wandering than when it isn’t – even if the things they are thinking about are pleasant. Furthermore, according to time-lag analyses of the data, mind-wandering seems to be the cause, and not the result, of unhappiness.

Why this isn’t surprising

To students of religion, philosophy, and psychology alike, the results shouldn’t come at that much of a shock. They’ve appeared before, many times over, in different guises and from different angles. In the 1970s, Ellen Langer was already beginning her famous experiments on the power of mindfulness, or the conscious control over your thoughts and behavior at any given point, informed by a heightened sensitivity to and awareness of your surroundings. In Langer’s view, mindfulness is active thought: it is important to always take the time to stop, to consider, to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Else, we might fall prey to mindlessness, an autopilot, zoning-out, unthinking way of being that is characterized primarily by that lack of focus. And while mindfulness has many benefits—for instance, Langer has found that mindful thinking can make older adults’ vital signs begin to look younger and more active and can even reverse some of the effects of memory loss; that it improves our sense of control and in so doing, impacts our performance and our wellbeing; and that it can make us more creative and open-minded—mindlessness has just as many drawbacks.

From a slightly different tack, Tory Higgins has conducted numerous experiments on the power of engagement and flow, showing that people derive actual hedonic value from the strength of their active involvement in and attention to an activity. In other words, the more engaged we are, the better we feel – even in an activity that might strike us as boring. Indeed, flow is characterized by concentration, the very thing that is needed to prevent a wandering mind. And when we experience flow, we tend to feel happier overall, regardless of the mental effort involved. Furthermore, we are more motivated and more aroused, more likely to be productive and to create something of value.

And I won’t even begin to go into the power of the present mind from the point of view of philosophy, religion, and literature, as that is a book onto itself. Suffice it to say that it figures prominently in worldviews from Buddhism to Zen to David Foster Wallace.

Our minds are born to wander; sometimes, we need to rein them in

I’ve written before about the drawbacks of multitasking. But our minds, unfortunately, are prone to doing just that, even when we think we are only doing one thing. Isn’t that precisely what mind wandering is, a mutitasking of your mind?

It’s true that the brain’s mind-wandering default has many advantages, allowing us to plan, to think abstractly, to consider concepts that would be impossible without that ability. But sometimes, especially as we are bombarded with opportunities for distraction that play into our natural tendencies, it is worth making an effort to say, enough. To concentrate. To force your mind back to the present. Leave all of those nagging background thoughts and engage, actively engage, in what you are doing here and now. It might do wonders for your happiness, your productivity, and your general sense of self.

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

[photo credit:Creative Commons, from mindfulness flickr photostream]

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