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Health & Balance

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
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Mind Wandering and Happiness

Killingsworth tells WebMD that “one of our findings is that what people are doing and what they are thinking about appear to be mainly independent influences on happiness. “Consequently,” he says, “the main focus of the paper is exploring the fact that whether and where the mind wanders is an important determinant of happiness in its own right and that mind wandering appears damaging.”

Everyone’s mind wanders, he says, “and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert say in a news release. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

What’s more, “Mind wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” and the study “shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.”

People in the study were happiest when having sex, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

Killingsworth says in the news release that mind wandering “is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness” and that “how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

They estimated that a mere 4.6% of a person’s happiness in a given moment is attributable to the specific activity he or she is doing, but a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8% of happiness.

They say in the study, published in the Nov. 12 issue of the journal Science, that many religious and philosophical traditions preach that happiness can be found by living in the moment, “and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now.’”

They also say that such traditions suggest that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

And the new research, the authors say, suggests that these traditions are right.

People in the study ranged in age from 18 to 88 and represented a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and occupations. And 74% of them were Americans.

The researchers say more than 5,000 people are using the iPhone app to study happiness.

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