Focus! (It Might Make You Happier)

ice cream mind wandering daydreamingOne great talent that humans have, as compared to other species, is the ability to think about the past, the future, and the imaginary.  We’re not restricted to simply thinking about whatever we see in front of our faces.As a human, I can run a columnthis refers to an organic chemistry lab technique of purifying chemicals while thinking about how delicious ice cream would be right now – or, more productively, while planning what experiments to set up in the evening.  A monkey could perhaps run a column, but probably not daydream. I’m rather fond of this human talent, but the results of a study just published in Science indicates that people are actually less happy when their minds are wandering rather than focusing on the task at hand.

daydreaming during the day and happinessIn an innovative use of technology, the authors of this study distributed an iPhone app to around 5000 people by getting them to sign up at This app asked participants – at random times throughout the day – what they were doing, how they were feeling (on a number scale from 0 = very bad to 100 = very good), and whether they were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing.  If the participant responded that they were thinking about something not on task, they were asked whether they were thinking about something pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.  About 46% of the time, participants indicated that their minds had been wandering (Chart 1).

People that weren’t in the midst of a daydream rated their happiness (Chart 2) at about 70%, on average.  Those whose minds were wandering to pleasant topics were also at about a 70% happiness rating.  However, people whose minds were wandering to neutral topics rated themselves closer to 60% happiness, and those thinking about unpleasant things were barely above 40% happiness.  Since the majority of daydreams seemed to be about unpleasant or neutral topics (Chart 3), the majority of people with wandering minds rated themselves as less happy than those focusing on what they were doing.

happiness levels while thinking and types of daydreams

These results are interesting, but certainly not conclusive, as some factors are unaccounted for.  Though the authors assert that mind wandering causes some unhappiness, one could also imagine that the reverse relationship is true – that unhappiness causes mind wandering.  The researchers tried to demonstrate that this is not the case, by showing that a person’s happiness rating at one time had no correlation with their mind-wandering at the next time of polling.  However, they do not examine the relationship between how much a person enjoys what they are currently doing (which seems to be closely tied to momentary happiness) and how much their mind is wandering. When I am working at something mundane that I don’t particularly enjoy, like running a column, I feel a little less happy than when I am doing something I enjoy.  I am also much more likely to let my mind wander when I’m running a column than when doing something more rewarding. So which causes which? Does daydreaming cause unhappiness, or does dissatisfaction with the task at hand cause daydreaming?

Regardless, I think I’ll keep my mind-wandering ability.

Citation: Killingsworth, M. A.; Gilbert, D. T. Science 2010, 330, 932.
DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

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