Daydreaming, contemplating the future and raking over the past take up nearly half of our waking hours, scientists have found. But far from making us happy – this constant wandering of the mind is making us all miserable, they believe.
Psychologists at Harvard University have discovered that we are happiest when we are “living in the moment” and not dwelling on our position in the world. They claim that our minds wander 46.9 per cent of the time and it is these moments which make us most unhappy.
Our lives are most enjoyable and content when we are completely focused on the job in hand – even more than when we are daydreaming about pleasant thoughts. This is most likely to happen when we are having sex, exercising or in intense conversations with friends, they discovered. Listening to music and playing also helped take us out of our heads.
On the other hand the mind wanders most when we are resting, working or using our home computer. Activities such as reading, doing the housework and watching television appear to be almost neutral in their effect on our minds. The findings seem to show why people enjoy extreme sports, joining clubs and going for a chat down the pub.
Professor Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, co-authors, said that the unique ability of humans to review their past and think about their future was a mixed blessing. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” their study concluded. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The research, which uses a technique called “experience sampling” seems to run in the face of the old Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Mr Killingsworth invented an iPhone application that randomly questioned 2,250 volunteers from all over the world at different intervals of the day about their levels of happiness, what they were doing and what they were thinking about. Each time the participants, aged between 18 and 88, were asked to select one of 22 general activities and record how happy they were while doing it, as well as whether they were thinking about their current activity or something else.
Researchers at Harvard University found that people’s minds wander on average 46.9 per cent of the time, when they think about things that are not going on around them. Participants in the survey said they were distracted no less than 30 per cent of the time during every activity, except making love, when they were more focused than usual.
Mr Killingsworth said “mind wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities”. “Human beings are unique in their ability to focus on the non-present – to learn from the past, anticipate and plan for the future and even imagine about things that may not happen at all,” he said. “However when our minds wander we don’t do it in a way that benefits our happiness. We are doing it in a way that is detrimental.
“This is true even when we are in our least favourable activities and even when the topic on our mind is pleasant.” He said, like many religions and philosophies, the report suggested it was “living in the moment” that offered us most happiness. The idea is to resist mind wandering and to “be here now”.