Wandering minds

“A human mind is a wandering mind” — 47 percent of people aren’t thinking about what they’re doing, according to a new study — and “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” John Tierney writes in the New York Times:

Using an iPhone app called trackyourhappiness, psychologists at Harvard contacted people around the world at random intervals to ask how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking.

The least surprising finding, based on a quarter-million responses from more than 2,200 people, was that the happiest people in the world were the ones in the midst of enjoying sex. Or at least they were enjoying it until the iPhone interrupted.

. . . When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

People who focused on what they were doing were happier than those thinking about something else, regardless of what they were doing.  A wandering mind causes unhappiness, not the other way around, the psychologists concluded.  “We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering,” (Matthew) Killingsworth said.

What psychologists call “flow” — immersing your mind fully in activity — has long been advocated by nonpsychologists. “Life is not long,” Samuel Johnson said, “and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent.” Henry Ford was more blunt: “Idleness warps the mind.” The iPhone results jibe nicely with one of the favorite sayings of William F. Buckley Jr.: “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham speculates on students with wandering minds.

The fact that mind wandering seems “natural” does not, of course, make it desirable or acceptable.

Teachers still need to keep kids’ minds on task. As every teacher knows, an effective way to do that is for something in the class to change: if kids have been listening to the teacher, have students discuss something in groups. If they’ve been completing a written assignment, have them watch a video.

Whenever the teacher switches gears, it brings all the wandering minds back to the teacher, ready for a fresh try.

If adults can’t pay attention to their own lives — except during intercourse — imagine how hard it is to get juvenile minds to pay attention in class, Willingham writes.

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  1. j.d. salinger says:

    What? Oh, sorry. Yes, good article.

  2. I thought it was an interesting article, but, as usual in such things, it’s difficult to assign direction to the arrow of causality. Do people really enjoy sex more because they’re not thinking about other things? OR, are they not thinking about other things because they’re enjoying the sex? Similarly for all the other examples given…Would focusing on combing your hair and brushing your teeth instead of daydreaming really make you happier, or is the reason for the daydreaming simply that these activities aren’t inherently all that satisfying?