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Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?

by   @maiasz for TIME 

When your teacher told you to stop daydreaming and pay attention, she might actually have helped improve your mood as well as your school performance — if the findings of a new study on mind wandering are anything to go by.
The research, published in Science, shows that a wandering mind — whether you’re fantasizing about your sunny honeymoon or ruminating on a brutal divorce — is linked to low mood.

“Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all,” the authors of the study, Harvard doctoral student Matthew Killingsworth and psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, write in the new paper. And that unique ability, they found, does not make for a happier species.

To study the relationship between mind wandering and happiness, Killingsworth and Gilbert created an iPhone app — available atTrackyourhappiness.org — which contacted participants at random times during the day to ask about their mental state and their mood. About 5,000 people responded, ranging in age from 18 to 88 and living in 83 countries around the world; Killingsworth and Daniel analyzed responses from 2,250 for the study. (More on Time.com: Why We Conform to the Group: It Gets Your Brain High)

The app asked people three questions, related to happiness (“How are you feeling right now?”), activity (“What are you doing right now?”) and mind wandering (“Are you currently thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”). The results showed that people’s minds wandered a lot, regardless of what they were doing: people reported letting their minds wander 46.9% of the time, and at least 30% of the time during every activity except having sex. What’s more, people reported feeling less happy when their minds wandered than when they didn’t — even when the tasks at hand weren’t enjoyable.

“Our main result is that mind wandering on average is associated with less happiness,” says Killingsworth. “Unpleasant mind wandering in particular makes the single biggest difference in happiness [levels]. However even you if took out [negative trains of thought], mind wandering was still associated with less happiness.” (More on TIME.com: Doodling May Help You Pay Attention)

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