We do it while we eat, while we work, even while we pray. In fact, new research has found we let our minds wander almost half the time we do anything.
The problem? It’s making us unhappy.
“In every situation that we measured, people were considerably less happy when they were mind-wandering," says Matt Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University whose findings were just published in the journal Science. "And this was enormously true when mind wandering was unpleasant."
The study -- part of a larger research project about the causes of human happiness -- collected real-time data from 2,250 volunteers via an iPhone app. Researchers asked how happy the subjects were, what they were doing (talking? working? exercising? watching TV?), what they were thinking about while doing it, and if they were thinking of something else, whether that something else was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Turns out, no matter what we’re up to -- commuting to work, making dinner, talking to friends, even meditating -- our minds are usually somewhere else.
“We found that about 47 percent of the time, people were mind wandering,” says Killingsworth. “It was ubiquitous. It pervades people’s experience. It was greater than 30 percent in all but one activity.”
You guessed it: Making love tends to hold our attention. Sadly, though, most of us don’t have that kind of focus throughout the day. And this apparently gets us down.
In fact, Killingsworth and his colleagues found that not even daydreaming about something fun -- like an upcoming vacation -- makes us as happy as we are when we’re task-focused. Space out about something neutral -- like grocery shopping -- and we’re unhappier yet. Start fussing about bills or deadlines or a relationship gone awry and our happiness drops 24 points lower.
Jennifer Heigl, a 33-year-old wine blogger and writer from Portland, Ore., says she rarely lives in the moment.
“My mind is constantly wandering -- thinking about what’s coming next, thinking about what I just did, thinking about deadlines,” she says. “Usually it wanders because I’m bored, not because I’m stressed. But it also tends to wander when I have a deadline because it’s hard to focus. The internet doesn’t help.”
As a writer, though, Heigl says she can see both good and bad aspects to it.
“I’ve been called on it a couple of times,” she says. “But in a creative sense, that’s how our minds develop stories and songs. The more your mind wanders, the more creative you end up being.
Killingsworth acknowledges mind wandering can have an upside. But he feels humans should try to harness this ability for good, rather than for …
Wait, what were we talking about?
“It’s probably not a coincidence that we have this capacity,” he says. “I think it allows us to do a lot of useful things and is incredibly important for learning and planning and imagining. But at the same time, it has a downside for happiness. We seem to use it in ways that reduce rather than increase our happiness.”
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