Many unhappy returns for wandering minds

When thoughts roam, unpleasant feelings often follow

A wandering mind often stumbles downhill emotionally. People spend nearly half their waking lives thinking about stuff other than what they’re actually doing, and these imaginary rambles frequently feel bad, according to a new study that surveyed volunteers at random times via their iPhones.

People’s minds wander at least 30 percent of the time during all activities except sex, say graduate student Matthew Killingsworth and psychologist Daniel Gilbert, both of Harvard University. Individuals feel considerably worse when their minds wander to unpleasant or neutral topics, as opposed to focusing on current pursuits, Killingsworth and Gilbert report in the Nov. 12 Science.

These new findings jibe with philosophical and religious teachings that assert happiness is found by living in the moment and learning to resist mind wandering, Killingsworth says.

Mind wandering serves useful purposes, he acknowledges, such as providing a way to reflect on past actions, plan for the future and imagine possible consequences of important decisions. “We may tend to reflect on things that went poorly or are a cause for worry,” Killingsworth proposes. “That’s not a recipe for happiness, even if it’s necessary.”

In his new study, people’s minds actually wandered more often to pleasant topics than to unpleasant or neutral topics. But those reveries offered no measurable mood boost over thinking about tasks at hand, the researchers found.

It’s important to note that the new data apply only in the short run, comments psychologist Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Positive flights of fancy may lead to creative problem solving and planning that makes people happier down the road,” he speculates.

People’s minds usually veer in and out of focus on whatever they’re doing, raising the possibility that mind wandering occurs more often than was measured by a brief survey, remarks psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside.

Conversely, volunteers involved in absorbing, in-the-moment activities might have ignored survey requests and thus been undercounted. “It’s hard to believe that people answered iPhone signals during sex,” Lyubomirsky says. “Maybe it’s not the wandering mind that is associated with unpleasant moods but activities that are not engaging.”

It could also be that bad moods cause the mind to wander. But a close analysis of the iPhone data suggests that people generally felt worse after their thoughts had started to drift, Killingsworth says. Killingsworth developed an iPhone Web application that was used to survey 2,250 volunteers at random intervals. Participants, recruited through a research website, ranged in age from 18 to 88 and were typically contacted over several days. Most of them lived in the United States.

Volunteers rated how they felt at that moment on a scale of 0 to 100, selected what they were currently doing from a list of 22 activities and indicated whether they were thinking about something other than their current activity that was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Surveyed activities included resting, working, using a computer, commuting, shopping, walking and making love, a phrase that covers all sorts of sexual behaviors.

Surprisingly, none of these pursuits prompted roving thoughts that were consistently pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. “Happiness may be a function of two separate influences, current activity and mind wandering,” Killingsworth says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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