The Drifting Mind: A Cause for Unhappiness?


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This month we’re talking about drifting, so today’s Talk of the Week deals with the drifting mind and its relation to personal happiness. The modern mindfulness movement has been encouraging us to keep our drifting minds “in the moment” and “focused on the now.” But does this truly make us happier? While conducting his PhD research in psychology at Harvard University, Matt Killingsworth developed an iPhone App to attach some quantitative measurements to this question.

The App, called Track your Happiness, pings research participants at various times asking questions about what activities they are engaged in and whether they are focused on those tasks or thinking about other things. With this approach, he has been able to gather an impressive amount of data and has uncovered some interesting relationships between happiness and our drifting minds. He found that, while we tend to let our minds wander quite frequently, we also tend to be unhappier when we do. Interestingly, a wandering mind tends to precede later feelings of unhappiness, indicating that our daydreaming actually makes us less happy. If you are interested in the nitty gritty details of the research, you can read his published article in Science in addition to watching his engaging talk.

The plot thickens a bit when you also consider other research on the drifting mind, however. From Killingsworth’s research we see that mind wandering can decrease our happiness, but other research suggests that mind wandering improves our working memory and is correlated with higher levels of creativity and intelligence. So a drifting mind appears to have both benefits and drawbacks. What do you think? Should we be actively trying to keep our minds on task, or let them drift where they will? Have you experimented with mindfulness and keeping a focused mind? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

Article by Teresa Cvetkov, photo by Audrey Hasse.

Header image credits royalty free

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