Harvard Research: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind
Updated: Nov 18
It would perhaps come as no surprise if I were to tell you that a lot of the time our mind wanders and isn’t focused on what we’re doing in the moment. It’s an inherently human capacity that our mind can wander - that we’re able to think ahead and reflect upon what’s already been and gone. Without those abilities we’d be unable to plan ahead or make decisions let alone conjure memories of wonderful moments past. However, mind wandering comes with a cost as it can lead to excessive negative emotional responses - we may spend time worrying about things that may never happen, dwelling on times that have caused us sadness or anger and making comparisons between where we are or what we have now with where we might wish to be or what we might desire to have.
In 2010, Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert set out to explore if a wandering mind really is an unhappy mind. They created a large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings and activity of a range of people as they went about daily life, in effect recording the content of their moment to moment experience and marrying it up with associated appraisals of happiness. After analysing responses from 2250 adults, they found that mind wandering occurred frequently regardless of what people were doing – in fact overall, mind wandering occurred 47% of the time. That’s almost half of the time, peoples’ minds were wandering or to put it another way people were only focused on what they were doing a little over half of the time. The researchers also found that people were substantially less happy when their mind was wandering in comparison to when it wasn’t, i.e. happiness was highest when they were present moment focused. They then looked at what came first in this relationship – unhappiness or mind wandering, finding that there was a causal direction and it was that mind wandering led to unhappiness. Unhappiness did not lead to mind wandering. So it seems, as the researchers so eloquently put it, a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
Whilst anxiety and depression often involves more factors aside from a wandering mind, for any of us, no matter how well or unwell we feel with regard to our mental health, training the mind to wander less can create positive change and this needn’t be a huge, time consuming task. We can start small – really paying attention to the taste of the food that we eat, noticing our breath at points during the day e.g. each time you step into the shower or put the kettle on. Investing effort in developing present moment awareness is something worthwhile for all of us – something that Killingsworth and Daniel’s research can attest to.
You can access the research paper for free here