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Wandering Mind May Lead to Unhappiness

Researchers Say People Are Most Happy Having Sex, Exercising, Socializing, Mainly Because Such Activities Help Keep the Mind From Wandering
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 11, 2010 -- People are happiest when having sex, exercising, or talking to others -- in large part because such activities require enough concentration to keep their minds from wandering, new research indicates.

In general, people spend almost half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing in the present, and this “mind wandering” typically causes unhappiness, study author Matthew A. Killingsworth, a doctoral student at Harvard University, tells WebMD.

Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, PhD, a psychology professor at Harvard, used a new type of iPhone "app" to gather 250,000 data points on the thoughts, feelings, and actions of people as they went about their daily lives.

The Study

Using the application, researchers contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask what they were doing, how happy they were, whether they were thinking about what they were doing at that moment or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Volunteers had 22 general activities from which to choose, including walking, shopping, eating, exercising, watching television, and having sex.

The researchers say that, on average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9% of the time, and no less than 30% of the time while doing any activity except having sex.

Minds Don’t Wander During Sex

Killingsworth tells WebMD  that “sex was the only activity where the rate of mind wandering was below 30%.” Respondents’ minds wandered during sex only 10% of the time, he says.

He tells WebMD that “sex is a time when people appear to become fully concentrated” so that their minds don’t wander to other subjects.

“I suspect there are certain types of work or situations at work where the rate of mind wandering is quite low, and probably others where it is quite high,” Killingsworth tells WebMD. “I would hesitate to say that sex is the only situation where people don’t mind wander much, but it does seem to be the only activity with a low rate of mind wandering overall.”

Unlike other animals, people spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them -- contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or might never happen at all, he says.

Mind wandering, he says, seems to be the human brain’s “default” mode of operation.

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