New research has found that people spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are currently doing. More importantly, regardless of what people are daydreaming about, mind wandering does not make people happier.
The results of the study indicate that when people are not living in the present and focused on what they are doing, their mindless thoughts, in general, come at an emotional cost. A Harvard psychology professor and one of his doctoral students performed the study, the results of which appear in the most recent issue of Science.
The researchers created an iPhone app and solicited people to join the study, which would interrupt them at random points in the day. When contacted, the participants then provided answers to the following questions: How happy are you at the moment? What are you doing? Are you thinking bout something other than the task at hand? If so, are you thinking of something pleasant, neutral, or negative?
Final conclusions were drawn upon 250,000 data points on the thoughts, feelings, and actions of 2,250 study participants between the ages of 18 and 88, from 88 countries.
The study found that the frequency of how often a person’s mind leaves the present, and where their mind tends to go, are better predictors of the person’s happiness than the actual activities in which they are engaged. In other words, a wandering mind is a more consistently unhappy mind.
Even if the negative trains of thought (thinking about an ugly divorce, etc.) were removed, wandering minds were still associated with unhappiness. And, when people who were doing unenjoyable tasks were daydreaming about something pleasant, this still did not have a positive impact – which the lead researcher called “surprising.”
Previous research has found that “living in the present” allows people to be more productive and make more beneficial choices. In this author’s point of view, this goes along with the concept of daydreaming being unproductive and leading to unhappiness. Nothing is physically or emotionally being accomplished while daydreaming, whereas taking action produces results.
It is important to note that meditation seems to be completely separate from general mind wandering. People usually set aside a certain amount of time for meditation, which advises people to “be in the moment” or “live in the moment.” Many studies have found that people who meditate are happier, can better cope with stress and pain, and are physically healthier.
Also, although wandering minds may lead to less happiness in general, many researchers note that not focusing on the present is an essential component of creativity, planning and the general organization of people’s lives.
Some of these things might also be achieved through meditation, and the gray area between the two seems to be separated by living in the moment – being conscious of our actions at the present time, having a goal in mind instead of just thinking about random things.
As someone put it, this really gives us something to think about.