Why Mind Wandering Doesn't Make You Happier & What To Do Instead
Research shows that one of the most effective ways to spur creativity is to allow your mind to wander and to follow it without judgment. But science also shows why that is tougher than it sounds.
In 2010, two researchers working at Harvard University began exploring how people feel about and experience mind wandering. They did so by interrupting people at random times of the day by sending texts to cellphone numbers they'd gathered, along with the consent to interrupt. They got responses from 2,250 adults.
The text messages they sent asked a handful of questions. One was, "What are you doing right now?" and that question could be answered with a number from 1 to 22 that corresponded to various common, everyday activities—taking a walk, working, grooming/self-care, doing housework, taking care of children, making love. (First off, let's dispense with the joke that for many people sex is not nearly as everyday an activity as they might like.) What's of note about making love is that it was by far the least likely time for a study subject's mind to wander. People were, as they say, on task.
That was not the case, though, for so many other activities.
On average, people's minds wandered 47% of the time.
A key, high-level finding of the study was that people's minds wandered 47% of the time on average, at least for all activities except sex.
"The frequency of mind wandering in the real-world sample was considerably higher than is typically seen in laboratory experiments," the research found. "Surprisingly, the nature of people's activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered."
It's a natural activity, part of connecting ideas, and participating in what is sometimes referred to as a "time travel" activity. Mind wandering lets people reconstruct events past and imagine future ones, an act of deep humanity that, as far as we know, doesn't happen among the less evolved.
However natural, the study found this habit makes people very unhappy.
This is the twist. The very first question the Harvard researchers asked was not about mind wandering but about mood. The question was: "How are you feeling right now?" Participants answered on a 100-point scale from zero, which meant "very bad," to 100, meaning something like, "Fantastic!"
Then, after the study, participants were asked what they were doing, whether their mind was wandering, and the nature of the subject they were thinking about. Had their minds wandered to a "pleasant" subject, a "neutral" one, or an "unpleasant" one?
The researchers found that about half the time, people's minds wandered to a pleasant topic. In those instances, the study participants described themselves as being no happier or less happy than when they were not experiencing mind wandering.
In other words, a person having a pleasant daydream isn't necessarily a happier person.
Meanwhile, the other half of the time (on average), study participants described their minds as wandering to a neutral or unpleasant subject. In either case, those people were unhappy.
"In conclusion," the researchers wrote, "a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost."
People aren't just mind wandering—they're worrying.
This idea is reinforced in a fascinating 2014 study1—and in this context, the word "fascinating" might be interchangeable with the word "painful." The study aimed to see how comfortable people are being alone with their thoughts. The answer: not comfortable.
In fact, people are so uncomfortable that they'd rather give themselves an electric shock than sit quietly for 15 minutes in a room.
In the study, participants were left alone in a room with a button they could use to shock themselves. This particular test was done after a series of escalating studies exploring how comfortable people were being alone with only their thoughts and after the participants had said in a questionnaire that they'd rather pay money than be shocked.
And, yet, 67% of men and 25% of women shocked themselves rather than sit quietly for 15 minutes.
There is a less painful way in which many people avoid letting their minds wander; we entertain ourselves. We stream shows or send messages back and forth on our devices, creating constant stimulation that allows our attention to hover just a bit above a baseline terrain of self-awareness and discovery, which can be the lifeblood of creativity.
What does this add up to?
People who become creative learn to mind wander without judgment. They let ideas come to them from the recesses of their minds, and sometimes what crosses over into consciousness and becomes seed corn or a creative solution. They need to be able to do so without fear that the ideas will be a source of worry. In creativity, fear is not the friend of the creator.
Adapted with permission from INSPIRED: Understanding Creativity: A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul by Matt Richtel. Copyright © 2022 by Matt Richtel. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Matt Richtel has been a reporter at the New York Times since 2000. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series that exposed the pervasive risks of distracted driving and its root causes, prompting widespread reform. He is the author of the national bestseller An Elegant Defense, aw well ad A Deadly Wandering. He has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air, PBS Newshour, and other major media outlets. He lives in San Francisco, California.