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.
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.
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:
“…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
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