Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Study links wandering thoughts and unhappiness

Maybe it really is best to live in the present - the here and now - focused on the task at hand.

At least that seems to be the conclusion of a study that used a Web application for the iPhone to monitor people's level of happiness as they went about their daily activities.

The study is based on the responses of 2,250 volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 85, who agreed to be randomly contacted on their iPhones. With each call, they were prompted to answer an automated series of questions, including how they were feeling at that moment, what they were doing, and whether they were focused on what they were doing or thinking about something else. If their mind had wandered, they were asked whether the thought was about a pleasant, neutral or unpleasant topic.

Story continues below advertisement

The findings, published Friday in the journal Science, revealed that the subjects spent 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they were doing. What's more, people were considerably less happy when their mind was wandering.

"These results certainly surprised me," said the study's lead author, Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University. He had expected that people's wandering thoughts would make them more happy - not less so.

Mr. Killingsworth, and his co-author, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, point out that human beings, unlike other animals, spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them. People have the ability to contemplate "events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or will never happen at all."

The free-roaming human mind represents a remarkable evolutionary achievement, because it "allows people to learn, reason and plan," they write in the journal. But, the researchers add, this unique trait also seems to take an emotional toll.

"When people turned inward and started mind wandering they tended to be quite a bit less happy," Mr. Killingsworth said in an interview.

Even when the mind drifted into seemingly pleasing subjects, people were still less happy than when they remained focused on what they were actually doing.

Mr. Killingsworth is at a loss to explain why "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind." Maybe a lot of people just have a tendency to worry, or fret, if they let their mind drift.

Story continues below advertisement

He noted that some ancient philosophies and religions have taught that focusing the mind on the present is the path to inner peace and contentment. These old traditions may have a valid point, he said.

But, on the other hand, it's also possible the link between mind wandering and unhappiness is a self-correcting mechanism. If we could slip into a perfectly serene world of our own mental creation, why would we ever want to resurface? Mind wandering may, indeed, offer certain evolutionary advantages, but too much of it could be a bad thing. After all, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have quickly fallen prey to sabre-toothed tigers if they let their guard down for very long.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Globe Newsletters

Get a summary of news of the day

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at