Spacing Out Half the Day Makes People Unhappy in Harvard Study

People spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and their daydreaming usually doesn’t take them to a happy place, a study reports.

People’s minds wandered about 46.9 percent of the time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except sex, according to a study in the journal Science. Straying attention occurred most often at work.

Some religions suggest happiness is to be found by focusing on what’s happening at the moment, or “be here now,” the authors wrote, using a title of a 1971 book by spirituality and meditation guru Ram Dass. By analyzing the data over time, the researchers discovered that people didn’t merely fantasize when they were unhappy; instead, wandering minds led to unhappiness, said study author Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“People spend a lot of time with their minds wandering and that seems to be damaging for their happiness,” Killingsworth said in a telephone interview. The ability to think about things other than the present is a uniquely human trait, and seems to come with an emotional trade-off, he said.

Harvard University researchers surveyed over 2,200 people using an app on their iPhones, made by Cupertino, California- based Apple Inc., to ask them what they were doing, how happy they were, whether their minds were wandering, and how their daydreams made them feel. People were aged 18 to 88, and 74 percent of the participants were American.

Thinking Nice Thoughts

Though people thought of positive things 42.5 percent of the time, they were no happier when thinking of those things than when focusing on what they were doing, the data showed. People were more unhappy when their mind wandered to neutral or unpleasant thoughts.

That the data were immediate, as people were going about their days, rather than retrospective, allowed researchers to investigate specific activities throughout the day, including traveling, working, watching television and eating.

Analysis of the samples over time showed that those whose minds wandered when asked about their condition reported being more unhappy after a mind-wandering episode than when focused on their activity, the authors wrote. No relationship was found between being unhappy and having a wandering mind at the time of contact.

“Although this does not preclude the possibility that unhappiness also caused mind-wandering, such an effect seems to play at most a modest role in the present results,” the authors wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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