Tracking Mind-Wandering

Does your mind stray? Do you daydream often?

I do, or at least it seems like I do. But according to this Matt Killingsworth TED talk, people think about something other than what they’re doing 47% of the time. So maybe I’m not unique in that regard.

Is mind-wandering a good or bad thing?  If a diverted focus causes you to be less productive, or worse, have an accident, it can clearly be detrimental.

But what if it doesn’t alter your performance? What if your mind strays, but it doesn’t change you outwardly? What inward impact might it have?

According to Killingsworth’s research, the effect tends to be slightly negative on people’s mood:

While most people think of mind-wandering as a lifting escape from daily drudgery, the Track Your Happiness data shows that this may not the case. In fact, mind-wandering appears to be correlated with unhappiness. When people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. Meanwhile, when they were focused on the present moment, they reported feeling happy 66% of the time. This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner.

In my opinion, Killingsworth’s presentation over-dramatizes the impact mind wandering has on happiness scores.  For those thinking about something pleasant (other than their present activity), the happiness scores are virtually the same.  The scores for those mind-wandering on neutral thoughts is only slightly lower (59% versus 66%).  Only those dwelling on unpleasant topics had a significantly lower happiness scores than those focusing on the present (42% versus 66%).

It’s not surprising to hear that people are less upbeat when they are stressing out over something negative.

Nonetheless, this is interesting research and a reminder that sometimes being occupied with your work (or play) is a good way to mentally crowd out unnecessary anxiety.

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