Harvard Study Shows That a Wandering Mind Leads to Unhappiness

November 16, 2010 12:46 PM by jenniferl

Jennifer Lovejoy, PhD, Vice President, Clinical Development & Support:


It seems to be the nature of the mind to wander. Whether we are thinking about the past, planning for what we’re going to do after work, or daydreaming about what we’d do if we won the lottery, it seems challenging to keep our minds focused on the present moment. In fact, according to a new study from Harvard University researchers, people spend on average 47% of the time thinking about something other than what they are doing in the moment. Unfortunately, this lack of attending to the present has some negative consequences for our well-being.

The researchers used an iPhone app to randomly contact the 2,250 research volunteers and ask them how happy they felt on a scale of 0 to 100, what activity they were engaged in, and whether they were thinking about whatever activity they were doing. The results showed that people were consistently less happy when their minds were wandering, regardless of what activity they were doing (with the exception of sex). Furthermore, even when people’s minds wandered to pleasant topics, they were still less happy than when they were focused on the present moment. The researchers were also able to test which came first – the mind-wandering or the bad mood – and found that lack of being in the present consistently predicted low mood, not the other way around.

Many philosophical and spiritual traditions emphasize “living in the now” as the key to happiness, but there has been little scientific proof for this claim until now. Of course, keeping the mind from wandering is not all that easy, as many who have attempted meditation can attest. The key according to mindfulness approaches is practice. Try this simple experiment: Sit still and for the next 2 minutes, try to do nothing but focus on your breathing. Just allow your mind to follow the breath as it moves in and out of your body. Unless you are an experienced meditation practitioner, you’ll probably find that after only a couple breaths, your mind has already started to wander to other things. At the point you notice that your mind has wandered, the practice is just to bring the attention back to the breath…every time the mind wanders…over and over and over again.  If you do this on a daily basis, you’ll discover that you gain more awareness of your own mind’s tendencies and can catch yourself more quickly when you fall into ruminating or daydreaming.

Of course, “everyday mindfulness” can be practiced during any activity – typing on the computer, washing the dishes, walking or driving while doing errands, brushing your teeth. Try to see how often you can catch yourself mind-wandering and gently, without judging yourself, bring your attention back to the present. If you have an iPhone you can even be part of the Harvard study, which is recruiting more participants – just visit www.trackyourhappiness.org and you can participate in the research and see how your ability to stay in the present moment relates to your happiness.

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