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Engagement Leads to More Happiness, Mind-Wandering Leads to Less Happiness

I recently watched a TED talk by Matt Killingsworth entitled, “Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment” that reinforces what countless sages, philosophers, psychologists, spiritual teachers, etc., have been saying regarding the power of being engaged in the present moment. He created an app called “Track Your Happiness” for the iPhone that periodically pings you to have you rate your level of happiness and answer a couple more questions to better understand the effects of mind-wandering on happiness. The two other questions he asked in order to find this out were:

  1. What are you doing? (You choose form a list of activities).
  2. Are you thinking of something other than what you are currently doing? (You select from 1 of 4 choices: No, Yes – Something Unpleasant, Yes – Something Pleasant, or Yes – Something Neutral).

The Negative Effects of Mind-Wandering

What Matt found was very powerful and consistent with what many of folks have been saying for a long time (but it is nice to have more solid evidence to back it up!). When our minds begin to wander, we tend to feel less happy than when we are engaged in the activity at hand even if the activity itself is not pleasant (e.g., commuting to work, which tends to be an activity most people don’t like). Now, what if the mind is wandering to pleasant thoughts, you might ask? Doesn’t that lead to greater happiness? Well, it turns out that mind-wandering to pleasant things doesn’t improve happiness over engagement in generally unpleasant tasks. That’s a pretty incredible finding, isn’t it?
Moreover, the more that our minds wander, the more likely they will eventually elicit unpleasant moods. In this sense, mind-wandering is kind of like Russian roulette. Sure, our minds can wander to pleasant thoughts and images (which, again, don’t make us any happier than being engaged in unpleasant activities) but, like a game of Russian roulette, our minds will eventually float to negative thoughts and images (e.g., regrets, would of/could of/should of, worries about the future). Unpleasant mind-wandering definitely drops our level of happiness significantly when compared with activity engagement, no matter what the activity is.
Looking at the data more closely, Matt found that mind-wandering predicts unpleasant moods but an unpleasant mood does not predict mind-wandering. Thus, the relationship between mind-wandering an unpleasant moods appears to be causal (rather than it being the case that when we are unhappy our minds tend to wander).

The Takeaway?

So, the big takeaway is that we should all learn to focus our attention on the activity at hand, no matter what it is. Engagement in life leads to happiness. Mind-wandering, while there is a place for it in life, eventually leads to decreases in our level of happiness. While daydreaming and other forms of mind-wandering can be helpful, productive (e.g., generates ideas), and pleasant at times, we should learn to, somewhat ironically, learn to more deliberately let our minds wander. Thus, we should avoid mindlessly mind-wandering, which most of us tend to do about 50% of our time! As with anything else, deliberate practice is the key and, I’ve discussed in many blogs on the topic, practicing various forms of mindfulness can increase our engagement in life and thus our happiness. 

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