How a wandering mind can impact happiness

I wrote an article some time ago (He said, she said) on the wandering mind. Today, I received the following email from (a brain training app website):

How many times a day does your mind wander? Whether you’re thinking about an important meeting or your next vacation, mind wandering may be a distinctly human trait with evolutionary advantages. Important for creative thinking, it helps our brains form novel ideas and solutions in a constantly changing world.

But there may be a catch: mind wandering could make us less happy.

Mind wandering could affect happiness

In a 2010 study, researchers from Harvard University explored how mind wandering affects happiness. They created an iPhone app that periodically asked 2250 participants how happy they were feeling, what were they doing, and whether their thoughts were focused on the current activity.

The researchers found that people spend 46.9% of the time thinking about something unrelated to their current task, and they were less happy during these moments. Even positive thoughts had little effect on their mood, whereas neutral and negative thoughts made them significantly less happy. The researchers determined that a wandering mind affected happiness more than any activity.

In fact, their data suggests that mind wandering often may have been the cause, not the consequence, of the participants’ unhappiness.

Meditation can help you stay happier

Many studies have found that popular techniques like meditation and mindfulness can help people stay focused and happier.

In a 2001 study, Buddhist monks showed stronger activity, while meditating, in the prefrontal cortex — an area linked to attention. Later research has explored this link in non-Buddhists, and has shown that meditators generally score higher on attention and self-control assessments than non-meditators (Moore et al., 2009).

The way meditation works isn’t well understood, but one study suggests that it can help people realize when their minds wander, and this greater awareness helps them monitor and direct their attention.

Not surprisingly, many meditators also report feeling happier and more relaxed (Ruth et al., 2012). So if you ever feel lost in your own thoughts, why not try a few meditation techniques? After all, your happiness could depend on it.

Works referenced:

Carmody, James, and Ruth A. Baer. “Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 31.1 (2008): 23-33.

Hankey, Alex. “Studies of advanced stages of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist and Vedic traditions. I: a comparison of general changes.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 3.4 (2006): 513-521.

Hasenkamp, Wendy, et al. “Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: a fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states.” Neuroimage 59.1 (2012): 750-760.

Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932.

Moore, Adam, and Peter Malinowski. “Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.” Consciousness and cognition 18.1 (2009): 176-186.

Ruth A. Baer , Emily L.B. Lykins and Jessica R. Peters. “Mindfulness and self-compassion as predictors of psychological wellbeing in long-term meditators and matched nonmeditators.” The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice 7:3 (2012): 230-238.