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

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 09, 2010

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.

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.

Show Sources


News release, Harvard University.

Killingsworth, M. Science, Nov. 12, 2010; vol 330.

Matthew A. Killingsworth, doctoral student in psychology at Harvard.

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