Regardless of what they are doing, almost without exception, people's minds wander -- whether they mull over arguments with loved ones in the shower, think about weekend plans at work, or stumble on a creative new thought on their commute.
Everyone knows they do it -- sometimes more often than they would like. But new research by Harvard researchers, which used the iPhone to periodically interrupt 2,250 people's lives and systematically measure their reveries and their moods, found that about half the time, people's minds are wandering. Most strikingly, they found that overall, people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are focused on the task at hand.
"It's paradoxical and ironic, in the sense that you would think if you leave the present, you'd go someplace better, but people seem to go to places that make them less happy," said Matthew Killingsworth, a psychology graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of the work, published today in the journal Science. He said mind-wandering obviously has its benefits, but his data has given him some insight into his mood when he is feeling down.
In order to measure people's errant minds and moods, Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, took advantage of the iPhone, which allowed them to randomly and seamlessly interrupt people's days to ask a few simple questions. iPhone users, aged 18 to 88, signed up for a Web application that contacted study them at random times during their days to ask a simple set of questions: How happy were they at the moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking about something other than what the task at hand, and if so, were they thinking of something pleasant, neutral, or negative?
Researchers found that 47 percent of the time, people reported that their minds were wandering. In nearly two dozen activities measured, people's minds were wandering more than 30 percent of the time, with a single exception -- sex -- in which people seemed to be both single-mindedly focused on what they were doing and happy. Overall, people were less happy when their minds were adrift than when they were focused on the activity they were doing.
Eric Klinger, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who began studying daydreaming and mind-wandering several decades ago, said the finding that people's minds are untethered to their daily lives about half the time affirms what researchers have measured in smaller groups of people. But he noted that it would be interesting to know whether the interrupted activity, itself, was experienced as pleasant or not, to better understand whether the nature of the activity influenced a person's happiness.
"Daydreaming and mind-wandering serve a number of crucial roles," Klinger said. "They are nature's way of keeping us organized."
People who reported pleasant mind-wandering were happier than those who said they were having neutral or unpleasant thoughts. But the researchers found that people were not happier when they were having pleasant thoughts than when they were focused on what they were doing. That resonates with messages seen in everything from self-help books to religion, in which people are told to focus on the present, the authors noted.
Mind-wandering, Killingsworth said, "might run amok, leave us distracted from the things that we're doing or cause us to sit there ruminating on something that happened in the past that we can't change or do anything about."
Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is a leader in studying mind-wandering, said that the finding is dramatic. But he was cautious about the interpretation of the results -- the authors' statement that "a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
There may be a type of mind-wandering -- repetitive negative rumination on things people can't change -- that is detrimental. But Schooler noted that mind-wandering is critical in planning and problem-solving, and there is suggestive evidence that mind-wandering is an important source of creativity.
"What I wouldn?t want people to conclude is you shouldn?t mind wander -- that it is necessarily a counter-productive activity," Schooler said. "Even if there are times when mind-wandering causes one to be unhappy it doesn?t necessarily means it's not the thing that one should be doing."
The new work is part of a much larger project, seeking to understand the causes of human happiness. To participate in the study, go to www.trackyourhappiness.org.
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