The Weird Connection between Mind Wandering and Unhappiness

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Whatever we frequently think of and ponder, that will become the inclination of our minds.

~ Joseph Goldstein, writer and meditation teacher

Fun fact! we spend about the same amount of time thinking about something other than the present moment as we do thinking about the present moment.

One study estimates that about 47% of our waking hours are spent thinking about events that occurred in the past, may occur in the future, or are entirely imaginary (see here). Amazingly, the study also found that our minds are wandering at least 30% of the time regardless of the activity in which we are engaged (except sex)!

And, although this seems to be the norm for most adults, it’s not without consequences.

It turns out that mind wandering is more responsible for our unhappiness than whatever it is we’re doing!

Wait… what? So, if my mind doesn’t wander, I can be happy doing things I hate, like cleaning the toilet?

Well, maybe.

While most of us seem to be the happiest when having sex, exercising, or engaging in a conversation, mind wandering seems to be a better predictor of unhappiness than whatever it is we are doing. Oddly, even when are minds are wandering to positive things in our lives, we seem to be less happy than when we are paying attention to the present moment.

So, yes, you might be happier focusing on scrubbing that toilet bowl than allowing your mind to wander while you do it!

You may be thinking at this point, surely, not all mind wandering could possibly be bad. You could be right about that. There are many ways in which our minds can wander and some are surely worse than others, and others may be beneficial (see here).

The point to take here is that, at least in terms of happiness, any benefit derived from mind wandering seems to be canceled out by the negative aspects of mind wandering. Perhaps, then, it would be better to say that mind wandering, in general, is a strong predictor of unhappiness.

Would you have guessed that mind wandering causes more unhappiness than many of the boring and annoying chores and errands we do?

And, more importantly, why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Why does mind wandering cause unhappiness?

The author of the above study, Matt Killingsworth, suspects that when our minds wander, we tend to think about unpleasant things (see here). I’m sure we can all relate to this.

Picture these scenarios:

1. On your drive home from work, your mind is consumed by that mistake you made in front of your boss or peers.

2. When you are “talking” with a friend, you are worriedly running over your to do list for the weekend brunch you’re hosting.

3. When you’re trying to fall asleep, you’re anxiously thinking about a problem in your romantic relationship.

Of course, self-reflection can be a useful tool for understanding ourselves and formulating future strategies; but, like anything, there is a point at which this activity turns unproductive. If you have told yourself 100 times how stupid you are for making that mistake in front of your boss, chances are that line of thinking is no longer productive. Yet, it’s common for us to get caught up in vicious cycles of thinking, especially self-criticism.

Unfortunately, the more we engage in these negative patterns of thinking, the more likely we are to do them again. Just as repetition trains the brain to kick a soccer ball or throw a baseball, we can also train the brain to engage in negative patterns of thinking simply by repeating them.

This is a vicious cycle that can be terribly difficult to reverse. In fact, these patterns of thinking can become so relentless they lead to mental illness, like depression and anxiety (see here).

So, what can we do about it?

Meditation can decrease mind wandering

When our minds are wandering a specific part of the brain becomes active: the default mode network (DMN). As it’s name implies, the DMN becomes active when people are not engaged in a task.

The default mode network is believed to also be involved in communication among various structures in the brain, self-reflection, creating the sense of self, and moral reasoning. Interestingly, the DMN is less active for experienced meditators compared to non-meditators (see here).

Let’s take a step back for a moment. What is meditation?

Essentially, meditation is the practice of maintaining the attention on a present moment experience (like the breath) and bringing the attention back to that experience when the mind has wandered.

Isn’t that interesting? Meditation sounds like the practice of preventing mind wandering.

Just like practicing kicking a soccer ball or throwing a baseball rewires the brain so you improve at those skills, meditation may rewire the brain so that your mind wanders less.

I have been practicing meditation daily for a little more than a year, and I have noticed that my mind wanders far less today than it did before I started meditating regularly. Whether this change can be attributed to meditation alone is another question, but it does make intuitive sense to me that it would have this impact.

When I sit to practice meditation, I am constantly bombarded by thoughts. Some of those thoughts cause my mind to wander, and when I notice it wandering, I simply bring my attention back to the object of my focus (e.g., my breath).

By doing this repeatedly, am I not training my mind not to wander?

It certainly feels this way, and there is science to back this up (see here, here, here, and here).

So, consider relieving yourself of some of your negative patterns of thinking through meditation. It just might help you live a happier life!

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