Wandering Toward Unhappiness: How a Drifting Mind Can Make You Miserable

Wandering Toward Unhappiness - How a Drifting Mind Can Make You Miserable

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

For Matt Killingsworth Ph.D., studying happiness is a full-time job. A Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar, inventor of the Track Your Happiness app and doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, he’s driven by the idea of learning what’s behind being joyful. So much so that he embarked on a groundbreaking journey to study people’s happiness in daily life — on a tremendous scale, around the world. Through the use of the app, Killingsworth and his research team were able to compile a massive amount of data concerning what makes us happy (or unhappy) at any given moment.

“My results suggest that happiness is indeed highly sensitive to the contents of our moment-to-moment experience. And one of the most powerful predictors of happiness is something we often do without even realizing it: mind-wandering.”

Track your happiness

By using Killingsworth’s app, participants received signals on their iPhones at random times, where they answered questions about their experience the instant right before the signal.

“The idea is that if we can watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day, and try to understand how things like what people are doing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and all the other factors that describe our experiences relate to those ups and downs in happiness, we might eventually be able to discover some of the major causes of human happiness.”

The first question concerned happiness: How do you feel? on a scale from very bad to very good. Next, an activity question: What are you doing? on a list of 22 activities ranging from eating and working to watching television. The final question was about mind-wandering: Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing? Participants could say either no (they are focused on their activity) or yes (they are thinking about something else). They were also asked if the subject matter of those thoughts were pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

As of July of 2013, the project has collected over 650,000 real-time reports from over 15,000 individuals. And it’s a diverse group, from a wide range of ages (from 18-80), incomes, education levels and marital statuses. “They collectively represent every one of 86 occupational categories and hail from over 80 countries,” said Killingsworth.

The team then poured through the data. The results were clear: when we don’t pay attention to what is in front of us at this very moment, unhappiness ensues.

Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Be here now

Back in the 1970’s, Richard Alpert (otherwise known as Ram Dass), wrote a small book on how to “Be Here Now.” The entire focus of the booklet was about staying in the moment. Other authors and spiritual leaders have taken up the torch since then, with their own take on mindfulness — Eckhart Tolle comes to mind, but the message remains profound in its simplicity: pay attention.

Easier said than done.

For anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat — or asked to focus on a single, habitual task (like tying your shoes) for a mere minute — knows that the mind can be a wandering beast, and not very cooperative about being tamed. In fact, our minds like to wander. A lot. Killingsworth’s research shows that, on average, forty-seven percent of the time, we are thinking about something other than what we are currently doing. But the rate changes depending on the activity. Taking a shower or brushing your teeth comes in at 65 percent. Working was slightly lower at 50 percent. Exercising, 40 percent. Sex seemed to have the lowest level of mind-wandering with 30 percent.

Says Killingsworth:

“We found that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not, which is unfortunate considering we do it so often. Moreover, the size of this effect is large—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.”

We may believe that when our mind wanders while we are doing something not very enjoyable, it would actually be beneficial for happiness. But the research paints a different picture. Across the board, people are less happy when their mind is wandering, regardless of what they’re doing.

Wandering Toward Unhappiness - How a Drifting Mind Can Make You Miserable - Troubled Snoopy

Take for example commuting, usually people don’t find it very fun. And yet, people are significantly happier when they are only focused on the commute instead of having their mind wandering off. “This pattern holds for every single activity we measured, including the least enjoyable. It’s amazing.”

But is mind-wandering actually causing unhappiness, or vice versa?

Because the data had many responses from each person, the research team was able to see if mind-wandering preceded unhappiness or if unhappiness came first. What they found was a strong correlation between the mind-wandering and feeling unhappy a short time later — not the other way around. In short, having a wandering mind is a cause, not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.

A big part of the reason that not being present causes so much misery is because when our mind wanders, we often think of unpleasant things: we worry and are anxious, dwell on regrets. Such negative thinking has a huge impact on happiness, or lack thereof. Killingsworth points out that even when people are distracted by something considered neutral, they are still markedly less happy than when they are present. Taken a step further, even pleasant thoughts produce slightly less happiness than when the mind isn’t wandering at all.

Be that as it may, Killingsworth reminds us that:

“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. But these results do suggest that mind-wandering less often could substantially improve the quality of our lives. If we learn to fully engage in the present, we may be able to cope more effectively with the bad moments and draw even more enjoyment from the good ones.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn: What is Mindfulness?

Article sources

About the author:

Carolanne WrightCarolanne Wright enthusiastically believes if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change. As a nutritionist, natural foods chef and wellness coach, Carolanne has encouraged others to embrace a healthy lifestyle of organic living, gratefulness and joyful orientation for over 13 years.

Through her website Thrive-Living.net, she looks forward to connecting with other like-minded people from around the world who share a similar vision. You can also follow Carolanne on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Further reading from Carolanne Wright:


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