While doing his PhD research with Dan Gilbert at Harvard, Matt Killingsworth invented a nifty tool for investigating happiness: an iPhone app called Track Your Happiness that captured feelings in real time. (Basically, it pings you at random times and asks: How are you feeling right now, and what are you doing?) Data captured from the study became the landmark paper “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”
Here’s an extract of Killingsworth’s fascinating talk (see the video below), which backs up what Buddhists have been saying about mindfulness for centuries: being in the present moment brings happiness.
People are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not. Now you might look at this result and say, okay, sure, on average people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, but surely when their minds are straying away from something that wasn’t very enjoyable to begin with, at least then mind-wandering should be doing something good for us. Nope. As it turns out, people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, no matter what they’re doing. For example, people don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities, and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else.
So how could this be happening? I think part of the reason, a big part of the reason, is that when our minds wander, we often think about unpleasant things, and they are enormously less happy when they do that, our worries, our anxieties, our regrets, and yet even when people are thinking about something neutral, they’re still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering at all. Even when they’re thinking about something they would describe as pleasant, they’re actually just slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering. If mind-wandering were a slot machine, it would be like having the chance to lose 50 dollars, 20 dollars or one dollar. Right? You’d never want to play.
So I’ve been talking about this, suggesting, perhaps, that mind-wandering causes unhappiness, but all I’ve really shown you is that these two things are correlated. It’s possible that’s the case, but it might also be the case that when people are unhappy, then they mind-wander. Maybe that’s what’s really going on. How could we ever disentangle these two possibilites? We’re lucky in this data we have many responses from each person, and so we can look and see, does mind-wandering tend to precede unhappiness, or does unhappiness tend to precede mind-wandering, to get some insight into the causal direction. As it turns out, there is a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later, consistent with the idea that mind-wandering is causing people to be unhappy. In contrast, there’s no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later. In other words, mind-wandering very likely seems to be an actual cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.