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#022: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

David Luescher
1 min read

An idea for you to consider

In 2010 Harvard University published a study titled  “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.

The researchers explored the emotional consequences in everyday life of mind wandering.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to learn how often people’s minds wander, what topics they wander to, and how those wanderings affect their happiness.

Below you find the key facts:

  1. People’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing. (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.)
  2. People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and this was true during all activities including the least enjoyable. (Also, the data in the study suggests that thinking about pleasant topics doesn’t lead to an increase in happiness, while thinking about neutral or unpleasant topics leads to unhappiness.)
  3. Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, the data from the study suggest that mind wandering is generally the cause of unhappiness, not just the consequence of it.
  4. What people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.

To conclude that mind wandering is useless would be the wrong conclusion.

Apparently, stimulus-independent thought (mind wandering) is an evolutionary achievement that allows us humans to learn, reason and plan.

However, it comes at an emotional cost as the Harvard study revealed.

Interestingly, the Harvard study coincides with the teaching of philosophical and religious traditions that one finds happiness by living in the moment and moreover, many of these traditions train the practitioner in resisting mind wandering.

So, what is the takeaway to live a happier and more fulfilled life?

  1. Focus on the present activity to experience more happiness (it doesn’t even matter whether the activity is a pleasant one)
  2. Work on improving your ability to focus on the present moment (e.g. by meditating)

A quote for you to ponder

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” - Martin Luther King Jr.


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