Own My Growth

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A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind

wandering mind

An SMS notification flares up on the phone. A question appears on the screen- How are you feeling right now? The respondents choose a number from between 0(very bad) to 100(very good).

As soon as the response is sent, a follow-up question appears- What are you doing right now? The respondents scroll through and select from the many choices given.

Then a final question appears- Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing? The respondents select one of the four choices-


Yes- something pleasant

Yes-Something neutral

Yes- Something unpleasant.

In 2010 about 2000 respondents participated in a ground-breaking clinical experiment by two Harvard clinical psychologists, Matthew Killingsworth, and Dan Gilbert. They wanted to understand the impact of a wandering mind on our well-being. To find out, they designed this unique experiment that prompted participants to report on their current thoughts, emotions, and levels of mind wandering at random times, roughly three times per day for a few weeks.

An intriguing pattern emerged as the 2000 respondents replied to the SMS triggers.

  • Everyone’s mind wandered 50% of the time, no matter what work they were doing.
  • It didn’t matter whether the respondents were doing a boring home chore like cleaning the dishes or sipping cocktails on the sun-drenched deck of a yacht- their minds were equally likely to wander to good, bad, or neutral things.
  • Most importantly, the wandering mind, whether towards good, bad, or neutral things, was almost always less happy than a mind focused on what it was doing, no matter if the task was cleaning the dishes or sunbathing on the yacht.

The conclusion of this research was revealing. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. People whose minds wander a lot tend to suffer bad moods more. They experience negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. In contrast, the more people are mindfully engaged with whatever moment-to-moment tasks they are doing, the better their mood is.

The practical takeaway from the research was this. Mindfulness—the practice of being fully present- is vital to unlocking a neutral and positive mindset. By anchoring our attention to the present moment, we can break free from the clutches of mind wandering and its associated unhappiness.

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