I came across this study, carried out by Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, just yesterday, even though it was published last November. It confirms that most of us are ‘mentally checked out’ for a good portion of the day, operating on a type of autopilot which does not lead us to feeling very content. For 46.9% of the time during their waking hours people are engaged in ‘mind wandering’, not really focusing on the outside world or the task at hand, but rather looking into their own thoughts. And what this study of 2,250 people shows is that this activity – despite its obvious attraction – doesn’t make us feel happy.
The study was designed to find out what kind of activities people did throughout a day, and which made them happiest. So people were asked to indicated what they were engaged in at different random moments chosen during the day. Mind wandering was just one of 22 possible activities people could list, but turned out one of the most common. And here is the interesting part – the participants reported being unhappy during the periods of mind wandering. Thus how people deal with mind wandering is a better predictor of happiness than many other indicators which we normally use, such as relationships, careers or the actual activities people are engaged in. The study is another support for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, with its emphasis on just staying in the present moment and recognizing our stories as stories, as an aid toward greater happiness.