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A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, researchers find

Human beings, unlike other species, spend much of their time thinking about past events, possible future events or even impossible events, rather than focusing on what is going on around them.

This ‘mind wandering’ allows us to plan, learn and reason, but could it also be causing unhappiness?

The study

In order to test this theory, psychology researchers Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert developed an iPhone app to create a large database of reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions from a broad range of people as they went about their day-to-day activities.

The application contacted participants through their iPhones at random points during the day, gave them questions and recorded their answers.

In order to discover which topics people’s minds wander to, how often they wander and the effect that these thoughts have on their overall happiness, the scientists analysed results from 2250 adults who answered the following question: ‘How are you feeling right now?’.

The participants then responded via a scale from very bad (0) to very good (100).

They were also asked ‘What are you doing right now?’ and ‘Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?’, which they answered with one of the following options:

  • no
  • yes, something neutral
  • yes, something pleasant
  • yes, something unpleasant

The findings

The results showed that 30% of people found their minds wandering during every activity except for sexual intercourse.

The results also revealed that people were happier when their minds were not wandering during all of the activities, regardless of how enjoyable they were.

The study found that the participants’ minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics rather than unpleasant or neutral topics.

However, even when they were thinking pleasant thoughts, they were still less happy compared to simply focusing on their current activity. The participants were also significantly less happy when they were thinking about neutral topics or unpleasant topics than about their current activity.

In other words, people reported feeling the happiest when they focused on the task at hand rather than daydreaming, even if their thoughts were pleasant. Therefore wandering minds were found to lead to unhappiness.

This study contributes to an already vast and growing body of research on the benefits of mindfulness.

In order to combat the detrimental effects of a wandering mind in the workplace, organisational leaders and HR professionals should consider organising practical meditation and mindfulness workshops to teach employees how to calm their active minds and focus on the present moment.


Killingsworth, M. A. & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330 (6006), 932. DOI:10.1126/science.1192439

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