Is a wandering mind making you unhappy? That’s the question behind this paper by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.
We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found that…
- People are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is
- Doing so typically makes them unhappy.
Your Default Mode Network (DMN) is a part of the brain that literally causes you to default to mind wandering — to thinking about something other that what is happening in the moment, specifically in a self-referential way. It’s like a little recursion center where you think about yourself, about yourself thinking, about thinking about yourself thinking…
Among all of the things that make us human, this ability of ours is certainly near the top of the list. It may be central to our self awareness and higher cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, like everything else in life — it’s a double-edged katana. That very ability is associated with a less happy mental-state.
In their paper, A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind, Killingsworth and Gilbert explore this with a novel approach to data collection: a smart-phone app!
Laboratory experiments have revealed a great deal about the cognitive and neural bases of mind wandering (3–7), but little about its emotional consequences in everyday life. The most reliable method for investigating real-world emotion is experience sampling, which involves contacting people as they engage in their everyday activities and asking them to report their thoughts, feelings, and actions at that moment. Unfortunately, collecting real-time reports from large numbers of people as they go about their daily lives is so cumbersome and expensive that experience sampling has rarely been used to investigate the relationship between mind wandering and happiness and has always been limited to very small samples
They were able to collect data from 2250 adults. Not bad. About half men, half women (lightly more dudes at 58%). With 73.9% coming from the U.S..
They grouped what they found into 3 groups:
First, people’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing. Mind wandering occurred in 46.9% of the samples and in at least 30% of the samples taken during every activity except making love. The frequency of mind wandering in our real-world sample was considerably higher than is typically seen in laboratory experiments. Surprisingly, the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered
In other words, their data suggests that the subjects minds were wandering a lot. And that whatever the activity was they were doing had little impact upon whether their minds wandered at all, nor whether the thoughts their minds wandered to were positive or negative in nature.
Unless of course you were fucking. In which case, you were focused and feeling fine! Not shocking there.
Second… people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not… this was true during all activities, including the least enjoyable… Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness
When their minds wandered, they broke down into:
- 42.5% happy thoughts
- 26.5% unhappy thoughts
- 31% neutral thoughts
But they didn’t appear to be any happier talking about their happy thoughts than they were about their current activity.
Further, mind-wandering appears to be its own “cause”, rather than being the product of unhappiness or other reasons — this is consistent with other research on the Default Mode Network.
Third, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.
And in conclusion:
… a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.
I think this is a study worth taking seriously. The conclusions, while worded a bit stronger than I’d like, do jive with much of the research in this area. This is a paper that has already sparked more research into both what is really going on with our wandering minds AND what we can do about it — HINT: Train your brain like you train your body — and I think that is warranted.
I do wish there was less conflation of what are actually dramatically different versions of mental activities: prayer, meditation, worshiping, etc. These are not the same any more than a squat is the same as a chin up. And there are vastly different methods of meditation that likely have equally vast effects as training tools.
We spend a great deal of time criticizing (rightly) physical fitness studies that make claims that are far too broad based upon treadmill studies — as though those are going to necessarily apply to a strength athlete, etc. We should be doing the same here. Going for a jog and squatting double body weight are near opposites in what they do to (and for) you — and if you make them goals, then your methods had better reflect that. Mind-training tools & goals are the same.
Further, we should be honest about the likelihood in any self-reporting study like this that subjects are being misleading, telling us half-truths, or even outright lying. Without any serious control of this, we should be quite wary of making claims beyond the bounds of what the methods could possibly give us.
Still, nitpicking aside, I think we can safely take the underlying point that this (and similar) studies are suggesting: Weakness of the mind is as bad as weakness of the body — and both tend to make you less happy.
Tomorrow I’ve got a review of a paper discussing mindfulness training and its affect on the Default Mode Network to see if we can take this further.
Now go lift something heavy,