by Rohi Shetty

“My mind wanders a lot, but fortunately it’s too weak to go very far.” ~Bob Thaves

Our happiness and success is influenced by the ability to focus our attention on our present activity. One of the biggest problems we face, especially while writing, is the tendency of the mind to be constantly distracted. In addition to external distractions such as phone calls, email, and social media, our ability to focus is severely challenged by mind-wandering.

Mind-wandering means our attention is on something other than what is happening in the here and now. We may be sitting in front of the computer, apparently working, and instead we may be thinking of something else:

  • the fight we had with our friend,
  • dinner at the posh new restaurant next week or
  • the assignment you should have submitted a week ago.

We all know that mind-wandering is a universal problem. But how much does it affect our happiness?

To answer this question, Harvard-trained psychologist Matt Killingsworth created Track Your Happiness, which uses smartphones to monitor and analyze people’s moment-to-moment happiness in daily life all over the world.

Killingsworth used Track Your Happiness to send people signals at random times throughout the day and asked them questions about their experience at the moment just before the signal. The purpose was to track their responses over the course of the day and to study how their happiness was affected by what they were doing, who they were with, and what they were thinking about.

Killingsworth’s study focused on responses to three questions.

  1. How do you feel?(on a scale ranging from very bad to very good.) This question assessed their present state of happiness.
  2. What are you doing?(on a list of 22 different activities such as eating, working, watching TV.) This question assessed their present activity.
  3. Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing? No (they were focused only on their current activity) or Yes (they were thinking about something else).(Yes responses indicated mind-wandering) This question assessed their mind-wandering. (In addition, they were also asked if the topic of their mind-wandering was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.)

Track Your Happiness collected over 650,000 real-time reports from over 15,000 people from over 80 countries. The subjects were a diverse group with a wide range of ages, incomes, education levels, marital statuses, and occupations.

Results of the Track Your Happinessstudy

  1. Our minds wander a lot.

People were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing 47% of the time. This means our minds are wandering about half the time.

  1. Mind-wandering depends on the activity.

Track Your Happiness found that mind-wandering varies during 22 different activities:

  • 65 percent when people are taking a shower or brushing their teeth,
  • 50 percent when they’re working,
  • 40 percent when they’re exercising.
  • 10 percent during sex.

In every activity other than sex, people were mind-wandering at least 30 percent of the time. This means that mind-wandering is universal and ubiquitous.

  1. Mind-wandering makes us unhappy

People were significantly less happy when their minds are wandering.

And surprisingly, mind-wandering affects happiness much more than we realize.

For example, mind-wandering is far more predictive of happiness than how much money we make.

  1. People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing.

For example, people don’t like commuting to work. However, they were happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is wandering off to something else. This pattern was true for every activity measured, including the least enjoyable.

  1. Mind-wandering causes unhappiness and not vice versa

There was a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later. This is consistent with the idea that mind-wandering is causing people to be unhappy.

In contrast, there was no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later.

Mind-wandering preceded unhappiness but unhappiness did not precede mind-wandering. In other words, the study strongly indicated that mind-wandering is a cause of unhappiness and not just a consequence of unhappiness.

  1. Mind-wandering causes unhappiness irrespective of the nature of the thoughts

It’s logical that when people thought about unpleasant things such as worries, anxieties, and regrets during mind-wandering, they were unhappy.

Yet even when people were thinking about something they described as neutral, they were still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering.

And most surprisingly, even when they were thinking pleasant thoughts during mind-wandering, they were still slightly less happy than when they weren’t mind-wandering at all.

The Track Your Happiness study clearly shows that we can improve the quality of our lives by reducing our mind-wandering. However, this doesn’t mean we should stop mind-wandering completely. We do need to learn from the past and plan for the future. Also, creative mind-wandering is of immense value to writers and artists.

Finally, the main lesson from this study is:

If we learn to more mindful in the present moment, we will be happier in good times and less unhappy in bad times.

It’s that simple.


Does Mind-Wandering Make You Unhappy?

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Over to you:

How does mind-wandering affect your happiness?

Let us know in the comments below.

(29 November 2014)

Rohi Shetty has published five illustrated e-books for children on Amazon. Subscribe to his blog Write. Publish. Repeat. to receive free copies of his e-books and connect with him on Google+.

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