If you’re unhappy, your mind is probably out of focus. A Harvard study that tracked the thoughts and activities of tens of thousands of participants found overwhelmingly that if you're feeling unhappy, then you're mind has been wandering. Conversely, happiness correlates closely with present-moment awareness, which anyone can learn.
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
That is the bottom-line conclusion of a groundbreaking Harvard study on happiness. Created by then-Harvard doctoral psychology student Matt Killingsworth back in 2010, the study overwhelmingly found that when participants’ minds were wandering while performing a task, they were less happy than when focused on the task.
When our minds wander, we tend to worry or focus on negative events. However, the Harvard study showed that even when our mind-wandering leads to pleasant or neutral thoughts, we still are considerably less happy than when we are focused on the present.
Killingsworth created an app (more below) that contacted participants at random times, and asked them three questions:
1. How do you feel? (ranging from very bad to very good)
2. What are you doing? (which they indicated by selecting from a list of 22 activities)
3. Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing? (yes or no)
Participants spent nearly 50% of their time thinking about something other than what they were doing. Although the amount of time spent mind wandering did vary somewhat by task, most tasks fell within a mind-wandering range of 40-65%
The study is the most massive of its kind ever undertaken. In its initial phase, the study gathered over 650,000 reports from 15,000 people concerning their activities, thinking and happiness. The study is ongoing, and to date has collected data from over 100,000 participants – from teens to octogenarians representing over 80 countries and occupations and a wide range of income levels and life circumstances.
Across the board of this massive study sample, present-moment awareness correlated with greater happiness, while mind wandering correlated with unhappiness.
Happiness is an Inside Job
Could it be that people who engage in unpleasant activities are more likely to let their minds wander, and so disagreeable external circumstances are at the root of our unhappiness rather than internal mind wandering? According to study’s significant data – no.
The study examined whether participants’ happiness preceded or came after their mind wandering. A clear pattern emerged, where the mind-wandering came first, with the person’s unhappiness appearing a short time later.
In other words, the change in the person’s focus came first, only then followed by a change in their happiness level.
Perhaps even more significantly, although there was some variance in happiness depending on the task at hand, by far the most determinative factor in a participant’s happiness level was not the particular activity, but whether their minds were wandering at the time.
This has stunning implications. If the frequency of your mind wandering matters more to your happiness than what you are doing, then you have significant power to control your happiness level regardless of your external circumstances.
Does that sound fanciful? Not really. The study also found that a person’s mind wandering predicted their happiness far more than their income level. Regardless of how much money you make, regardless of your external circumstances, the study showed that mind wandering was the best predictor of unhappiness while performing any activity, regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant the activity was.
Which is not to say that external circumstances don’t matter and don’t impact your happiness. But how you focus and what you do with your mind matter a whole lot more.
To be clear, mind wandering is not the same as creative daydreaming, visualizing your past or future, or the like. When your mind drifts and you passively remember a scene from your past without any awareness on your part, your mind is wandering and you are by definition not engaged in the present moment.
However, when you actively conjure up a scene from your past, perhaps to analyze and learn from it, you are fully aware, fully in control and fully present in whatever it is you are imagining.
How to Stop Your Mind Wandering and Gain Control Over Your Happiness
The first step in gaining greater control over your happiness is simply to become aware that your mind wanders and that its wandering is contributing to your unhappiness. Becoming aware of this correlation alone will help you notice when your mind is adrift so that you can get back on track and into the present moment.
Beyond general awareness, creating a discipline of noticing your thoughts and guiding them back to what is actually in front of you in the present will go a long way toward minimizing mind wandering and maximizing your happiness. There are any number of ways to do this, but I’m going to suggest two that can produce quick results:
1. Produce a “Thought Video.” One meditation/mindfulness exercise is to step back mentally, so to speak, and simply observe your thoughts. By watching your thoughts and the images that pass through your mind, you can quickly become more aware of them, and more readily notice when your mind is wandering. I find this to be quicker and more effective in producing thought and present-moment awareness than the more widely practiced breath meditation.
But you can take the exercise of observing your thoughts to a much higher level by making one small change. I call this the Thought Video exercise, and have described it more fully here. In summary, stand back and observe your thoughts. Watch them for 30 seconds or so. Then “reach in” with your mind and stop the movie playing in your mind.
Let’s say that at the point you stop, there is an image of a coffee cup in your mind. Just stop the mind video where it is and stay with the coffee cup, not allowing your thoughts to go forward for about 10 seconds. Then “press play” and allow the movie in your mind to proceed. Then stop it again, focusing on whatever image is there at that point.
Go through 3-5 cycles of starting and stopping. You need only spend about 5 minutes at a time. If you do this a couple of times a day consistently, you will soon notice that you have much greater awareness of your thoughts and much greater ability both to stop your mind from wandering and redirect your thoughts productively.
2. There’s an app for that. You can use the same app that over 100,000 people have already used in the Harvard study. Go to www.trackyourhappiness.org and download the Track Your Happiness app.
Like previous study participants, you’ll be able to “track your happiness” and your mind wandering at various points throughout your day, and discover those factors that boost your happiness. For every 50 responses you give to the app when it randomly contacts you, you’ll get a happiness report showing you when you’re most happy.
The Track Your Happiness app is available only for IPhone. If you’re an Android user, the next best thing is the iMood Journal app. iMood Journal lets you track your happiness (as well as other factors in your life such as sleep and medication). The app produces charts based on the input you provide which allow you to track your mind wandering and other factors that impact your mood. Similar to the Harvard study, it also sends you reminders throughout the day to track your mood.