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Science Says You’ll Be Much Happier If Your Mind Wanders Less

Science Says You’ll Be Much Happier If Your Mind Wanders Less

Our minds are a wandering machine. A study found that almost half of our thoughts are not related to what we are doing. If that isn’t a telling statistic, then I don’t know what it is. This raises questions: “How does this brain activity affect our happiness?” and “Does it make us happier (or not)?”

Much of the research on the factors that contribute to happiness has focused on factors like income, gender, education, and marriage, but as Harvard Psychologist Matt Killingsworth mentioned in Greater Good, “Factors like these don’t seem to have particularly strong effects.”

It seems, according to Killingsworth, that fleeting aspects of our everyday lives—such as what we’re doing, who we’re with, and what we’re thinking about—have a big influence on our happiness. And yet these are the very factors that have been most difficult for scientists to study. This drove Killingsworth and Daniel T.Gilbert to test the influence that such factors have on happiness.

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The Research

The Harvard study titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, made use of an unconventional technique known as experience sampling – where people were interrupted at various intervals during the day. This technique is extremely powerful. It allows you to find large patterns in human thought and behavior, develop a portrait of someone and find distinct correlations between thoughts, actions, and happiness.

The psychologists developed an iPhone app to sample ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions. At intervals throughout the day, people were sent a brief questionnaire asking them about their experience at that moment just before the signal.

They were asked how they felt (on a scale of very bad to very good), what they were doing (22 activities including watching tv and eating were provided) and whether they were thinking about something else. They could answer yes or no to this last question. If they were thinking about something else, they were asked whether the feelings were neutral, unpleasant or pleasant.

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A diverse group – ages 18-80, representing a wide range of incomes, education levels and marital statuses and nationalities – of 15000 people formed part of the sample. This allowed the researchers to gather over 650 000 real-time reports.

Our Mind Wanders Toward Unhappiness

The study found that 47% of the time people were thinking about something other than their current activity. This varied across the 22 activities – from 65% when taking a shower, 50% when working, 40% when exercising, all the way to 10% while having sex. Aside from sex, people’s minds were wondering at least 30% of the time. Our minds then wander a considerable amount of the time, even when we are resting and following instructions to think about nothing in particular.

According to psychology, if your mind wanders often, there is an 85% chance that you are subconsciously unhappy with your life. This study supports this notion. It was found that people were significantly less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and the size of the effect is considerable. In the words of Killingsworth:

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“…how often a person’s mind wanders, and what they think about when it does, is far more predictive of happiness than how much money they make, for example.”

This holds true for all 22 activities and regardless as to what the person is doing, even if what they are doing is not enjoyable, for example, commuting to work. This can be explained by the fact that when our minds wander, we often think about negative and unpleasant things – our worries, our anxieties, and even our regrets. These, in turn, have a big impact on our happiness.

How Mental Presence Affects Happiness

The data from the Harvard Group study also points to the fact that your happiness is not determined by the way we spend our day. Rather it has to do with engaging in the present.

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Mental presence then, where we match our thoughts to our specific actions, is a massive predictor of our happiness and should be cultivated for a happier life. However, as Killingsworth said, “The lesson here isn’t that we should stop mind-wandering entirely—after all, our capacity to revisit the past and imagine the future is immensely useful, and some degree of mind-wandering is probably unavoidable.”

What is suggested is that we cultivate ways to reduce mind wandering (e.g. meditation practice) as this ultimately will improve the quality of your life, help us more effectively cope with bad moments, achieve greater enjoyment from the good ones and become happier.

Featured photo credit: Martina K via magdeleine.co

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Last Updated on February 13, 2019

10 Things Happy People Do Differently

10 Things Happy People Do Differently

Think being happy is something that happens as a result of luck, circumstance, having money, etc.? Think again.

Happiness is a mindset. And if you’re looking to improve your ability to find happiness, then check out these 10 things happy people do differently.

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. -Dalai Lama

1. Happy people find balance in their lives.

Folks who are happy have this in common: they’re content with what they have, and don’t waste a whole lot of time worrying and stressing over things they don’t. Unhappy people do the opposite: they spend too much time thinking about what they don’t have. Happy people lead balanced lives. This means they make time for all the things that are important to them, whether it’s family, friends, career, health, religion, etc.

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2. Happy people abide by the golden rule.

You know that saying you heard when you were a kid, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Well, happy people truly embody this principle. They treat others with respect. They’re sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of other people. They’re compassionate. And they get treated this way (most of the time) in return.

3. Happy people don’t sweat the small stuff.

One of the biggest things happy people do differently compared to unhappy people is they let stuff go. Bad things happen to good people sometimes. Happy people realize this, are able to take things in stride, and move on. Unhappy people tend to dwell on minor inconveniences and issues, which can perpetuate feelings of sadness, guilt, resentment, greed, and anger.

4. Happy people take responsibility for their actions.

Happy people aren’t perfect, and they’re well aware of that. When they screw up, they admit it. They recognize their faults and work to improve on them. Unhappy people tend to blame others and always find an excuse why things aren’t going their way. Happy people, on the other hand, live by the mantra:

“There are two types of people in the world: those that do and those that make excuses why they don’t.”

5. Happy people surround themselves with other happy people.

happiness surrounding

    One defining characteristic of happy people is they tend to hang out with other happy people. Misery loves company, and unhappy people gravitate toward others who share their negative sentiments. If you’re struggling with a bout of sadness, depression, worry, or anger, spend more time with your happiest friends or family members. Chances are, you’ll find that their positive attitude rubs off on you.

    6. Happy people are honest with themselves and others.

    People who are happy often exhibit the virtues of honesty and trustworthiness. They would rather give you candid feedback, even when the truth hurts, and they expect the same in return. Happy people respect people who give them an honest opinion.

    7. Happy people show signs of happiness.

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    smile

      This one may sound obvious but it’s a key differentiator between happy and unhappy people. Think about your happiest friends. Chances are, the mental image you form is of them smiling, laughing, and appearing genuinely happy. On the flip side, those who aren’t happy tend to look the part. Their posture may be slouched and you may perceive a lack of confidence.

      8. Happy people are passionate.

      Another thing happy people have in common is their ability to find their passions in life and pursue those passions to the fullest. Happy people have found what they’re looking for, and they spend their time doing what they love.

      9. Happy people see challenges as opportunities.

      Folks who are happy accept challenges and use them as opportunities to learn and grow. They turn negatives into positives and make the best out of seemingly bad situations. They don’t dwell on things that are out of their control; rather, they seek solutions and creative ways of overcoming obstacles.

      10. Happy people live in the present.

      While unhappy people tend to dwell on the past and worry about the future, happy people live in the moment. They are grateful for “the now” and focus their efforts on living life to the fullest in the present. Their philosophy is:

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      There’s a reason it’s called “the present.” Because life is a gift.

      So if you’d like to bring a little more happiness into your life, think about the 10 principles above and how you can use them to make yourself better.

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