People spend 46.9% of their waking lives thinking about something other than what they're actually doing. It's a terribly inefficient use of one's mind and, worse, it actually seems to make people unhappy.
Letting your mind wander might seem like a bad thing, but really it's just the natural byproduct of being capable of abstract thought. Humans are capable of thinking about things that have happened, things that might happen, and things that may never happen at all. (As a science fiction blog, we rather encourage doing that last part.) Sure, letting your mind wander is a good recipe for goofing off, but it's also a necessary part of contemplation and reflection.
The problem is, whether we're doing it for low or lofty reason, letting our minds wander actually seems to make us demonstrably less happy. So says a new study from Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, in which they explain:
"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.
"Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities. This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present. Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged."
This may seem like a rather intangible area of study, but the researchers collected over 250,000 data points from 2,250 volunteers. The test subjects used a specially developed iPhone app that contacted them randomly to ask how happy there were feeling, what they were doing, whether they were thinking about what they were doing, and, if not, whether they were thinking about something pleasant instead. In order to more easily organize the data, subjects had to choose from twenty-two general activities, which could be anything from working to eating to walking to having sex. We can only hope the subjects weren't expected to respond immediately if they were prompted during that last one.
They discovered that our minds are wandering about 46.9 percent of the time in any given activity, and the mind-wandering rate was at least 30% for all but one activity. Thankfully, the only activity that generally got people's undivided attention was making love. That was also one of the activities that made people happiest, along with exercising and conversing with others. On average, the least happy activities were resting, working, and using a home computer (unless you're reading this site, of course).
Even more intriguingly, they discovered that people's feelings of happiness had much more to do with where their mind was than what they were doing. Only 4.6% of a person's happiness could be attributed to what they were doing, but 10.8% of it was caused by what they were thinking about at the time, and people consistently reported being happiest when their minds were on what they were doing.
And it does appear the mind-wandering is a cause, not just a correlation. The researchers did separate time-lag analyses that helped demonstrate people's mood was affected by their wandering mind, not the other way around. Of course, as the researchers note, this study is just confirming what many philosophies have been saying for millennia:
"Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to 'be here now.' These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."