Daydreaming on the beach

Daydreaming on the beach

What makes us happy? This most basic of questions has perplexed us since the beginning of human thought. Socrates made the radical suggestion that happiness was not restricted to the gods alone; humans could also attain it.

Today, psychologists put a scientific spin on this age-old issue. Dr. Daniel Gilbert has published a general-reader book called Stumbling on Happiness (reviewed in my blog). Recently, Gilbert and his student Matthew Killingsworth published a paper in the scientific journal Science, where they showed that the wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

They made this discovery by tracking people’s happiness at random intervals during the day. People in the study would get random notifications to their smartphones, prompting them to immediately stop what they were doing and go fill out a survey to capture what they were doing, thinking and feeling.

They found that the frequency of mind-wandering in people was pretty high. Almost half of the samples involved minds that were not focused on what they were supposed to be doing. The wandering-mind phenomenon is nothing new to scientists, or to humans in general. The percentage they found in this study (47%) was much higher than what had found in laboratory settings, owing to the new smartphone technology that allowed for the data to be collected in real-life settings.

More interesting to these researchers was that when people’s minds were wandering, they were less happy than when their minds were focused, whether they were involved in enjoyable activities or not. So if you think you can escape the misery of your job by letting your mind wander to more pleasant topics as a distraction, think again. You’re more likely to feel unhappy when your mind is wandering aimlessly than when it is focused on the task at hand, no matter how dull it is.

Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have been studying and treating the wandering-mind phenomenon using mindfulness-based interventions. During a mindfulness course people actually practice paying attention.

Studies show that this has a host of physical and mental health benefits, but the relevance here is that learning to pay attention helps free people from chronic unhappiness. This work is becoming accepted in the conventional medical system and deserves more attention than I can give it here. I encourage you to visit my blog for a longer review of the scientific support and a description of their self-help book on the program.

A personal anecdote: A few years back, I signed up to receive these random notifications on my smartphone. After only three days I started to see these requests as just another item on my to-do list, which caused me stress. For an entire year I did not take the time to respond, yet I still received them five times a day. (I look forward to a study that comes out on people like me. My hypothesis: Workaholics might not have time for happiness.)

Amanda Wintink has a PhD in neuroscience and psychology. You can email here at

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