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Pay Attention, Daydreaming May Be Making You Unhappy

Even when we're thinking about pleasant things, new research suggests we're happier when we focus on the present. Ommmmm.
April 3, 2013, 1:15pm

It’s a solid bit of advice, forged over thousands of years in eastern philosophy and folk idiom, familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a meditation class or read a self-help book: Be here now. Live in the moment. YOLO.

Now new scientific evidence has emerged that may confirm the proverbial wisdom: We’re happiest when we’re focused on the present.

As any therapist or good friend will tell you, dwelling on the past or the future is bound to bum you out. Matthew Killingsworth, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees—and, according to his recent TED Talk, he's got some science to back it up. In 2009, Killingsworth launched the Track Your Happiness project (TYH) while he was a doctoral candidate at Harvard. TYH gathers real-time data from thousands of people using an iPhone app, pinging them at randomized times throughout the day, asking them quick questions about their immediate state of happiness, what they were doing, and whether they were thinking about what they were doing or something else. (It’s unclear whether responding to your iPhone counts, which, given its distracting nature, one imagines could be a confounding factor.)

Killingsworth found that people reported being happier when they were focused on their present experiences.

Happiness is always a big subject, partly because it’s so elusive. “In the last 50 years, we Americans have gotten a lot of the things we want,” Killingsworth says in the video, adding: “The paradox of happiness is that even though the objective conditions of our lives have improved dramatically, we haven’t actually gotten any happier.” Furthermore, he notes, previous research indicates differences among Americans in areas like education and income, though they bear some significance, have proven to have a relatively small effect on a person’s happiness.

But if that’s true, what does make us happy? Killingsworth suggests it may have something to do with focus. As he puts it, “mind-wandering”—whether we’re dwelling on the past, or daydreaming of the future—is a very human capacity that allows us to “plan and reason in ways that no other species of animal can.” But animals in the wild don’t seem to get as depressed as we do, perhaps because survival is an all-consuming task. Could mind-wandering also be the thing that makes us unhappy?


Killingsworth’s data suggests it is. Over the course of several years, TYH collected more than 650,000 real-time reports from more than 15,000 people from over 80 countries and from widely diverse backgrounds in age, income, marital status, and education. He found that people reported being happier when they were focused on their present experiences—even when they were daydreaming about pleasant things.

A screen grab from Killingsworth's TED Talk. The graph indicates that mind-wandering (MW) makes us less happy.

That finding also held true no matter what people were doing, Killingsworth claims. If they were focused on being stuck in traffic, they were happier than if their minds were wandering while stuck in traffic.

The findings shouldn’t be overstated. As observed in the graphic above, the scale of measurement depicted here is slightly misleading: Were the graph’s vertical axis (happiness) presented on a 1-100 scale, the differences—particularly between people who were focused and those whose minds were wandering pleasantly—would appear much less significant. Still, given the large data set, the trend is compelling.

And it’s particularly compelling because Killingsworth was able to find significant indications of causality. Intuitively, it often feels like unhappiness causes mind-wandering, not the other way around. If I hate my job, I might start thinking about last weekend's date. But as with so many cause-and-effect narratives created by our brains (even, many have argued, our sensation of free will), Killingsworth’s data indicates the mind-wandering itself may be to blame. When testing people’s happiness over time, there is “a strong relationship between mind-wandering now and being unhappy a short time later,” he says. “In contrast,” he adds, “there is no relationship between being unhappy now and mind-wandering a short time later.”

It’s still unclear what happens in those interstices between testing samples: What causes the mind to wander? The answer could be as varied as life itself, subject to infinite influences, both internal (say, a subtle shift in body chemistry for any number of reasons) to external (a smell on the breeze reminds you of your ex).

Today's hyper-connected world gives our minds more reasons than ever to get distracted. New studies keep indicating that maybe we aren’t really hardwired to spread our attention so thin. In December, a Michigan State University study linked multitasking with increased depression and social anxiety; just yesterday news surfaced that 11 percent of American children have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But, as any mindfulness meditation instructor will tell you, Killingsworth research does suggest that paying attention to when our mind wanders and correcting it could be helpful. Like a golfer correcting his form, subtle, conscious, repeated corrections to bad habits over time lead to better habits—until the good habits eventually feel just as natural as the bad ones did. If happiness is a habit, as some believe it is, a bit more mindfulness may offer hope.