Harvard happiness researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert published findings today in the journal Science that suggest people are less happy when they let their minds wander.
2,200 subjects in the study, ages 18 to 88, used an iPhone app that randomly asked them what they were doing during the day, what they were thinking about, and to rate their level of happiness throughout. Here’s what they found:
Forty seven percent of the time, people reported thinking about something other than what they were doing in the moment. That act of mind-wandering was linked to a lower level of happiness. And using a time-lag adjustment, the researchers say they confirmed that the mind-wandering was more likely to be the cause, not the result of unhappiness.
Daydreaming – it’s an inherently human activity. When I think about my two year old son and his little budding capacity for conscious thought, I want him to have plenty of time to think and create stories in his head.
Creativity and abstract thought require taking ourselves out of the moment to conjure up another reality — another possible solution or scenario that isn’t right in front of us. When I carve out time for my son to just play and imagine, that’s the little brain skill I hope he’s working on.
Daydreaming is related, but I think I see the difference. As an adult, when my mind wanders, it’s usually to something worrisome — I’m hung up on something that happened in the past or something I’m preoccupied with for the future. When my son’s mind wanders, I’m pretty sure it’s to a gripping mental image of an airplane take-off, or an episode of Bob the Builder.
As the researchers reported, one of the things that makes people happiest is being engaged in conversation. Hard to do when you’re not really there. I think it’s because we’re most satisfied when we’re connected to people, including our kids.