Unhappily Pervaded by the Non-Present

Here’s some coverage from the website Science Daily of a study published in the journal Science, research by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. The topic is the impact of the wandering mind on happiness. An excerpt:

“A human man mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.

The researchers created an interface for the iphone, which lets respondents rate their happiness throughout the day. (You can take a look at their project here at Track Your Happiness.org.) They found that people are frequently mind-wandering. “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.”

When are people most and least happy?

The findings were for the three happiest activities: “making love, exercising, engaged in conversation.” The least happy: “Resting, working, or using a computer.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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