A leading Australian psychologist debates the findings of a US based research team which suggests that allowing our minds to wander makes us unhappy.
People spend about half of their time thinking about being somewhere else, or doing something other than what they are doing, and this perpetual act of mind-wandering makes them unhappy, according to the study, published today in Science.
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University argue that the 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 remarkable evolutionary achievement," they say, "that allows people to learn, reason and plan", but they argue that it comes at an emotional cost.
The study tracked 2,250 people via a smartphone application, or app, that contacted volunteers at "random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant."
When the results were tallied, it appeared that people's minds were wandering 46.9 percent of the time.
The study reports that subjects were happiest while having sex, exercising or having a conversation. They reported being least happy while using a home computer, resting or working.
By examining the mind-wandering responses, researchers found that "only 4.6 percent of a person's happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person's mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness."
The study said "time-lag analyses" suggested that "subjects' mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness."
According to the study, subjects tended to be most focused on the present, and least prone to mind-wandering, during sex.
Minds were wandering at least 30% of the time during every other activity.
"This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present," says Killingsworth.
"Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness."
Unhappiness is not the default state
Robert Cummins, Professor of Psychology at Deakin University, Melbourne, and author of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, disagrees.
"I don't think this study shows us very much", he says, "and it certainly does not show us that a wandering mind produces unhappiness."
"What happens when people are in a contented set-point kind of a mood state is that their minds aren't enormously engaged in anything, so they'll think about their holidays, or their hobbies or exercising. But thinking about exercise will not elevate the mood as much as performing the exercise."
Cummins says exercise is a well documented way of elevating mood, "as long as you're not breaking rocks in a chain gang. If it's voluntary exercise that you're doing then this will elevate mood."
He also says that conversation, engaging with other people, makes us feel better because it's shared activity and we're choosing to do it. And that is the key, he says.
"What it shows is that when we engage actively in chosen activities, then it elevates our mood briefly, and then it comes back again. But where it comes back to is not unhappiness. It's 75 on a 0 to a 100 scale. These authors have not recognised that."
"The absolute basis for a scientifically credible study is that you absolutely must know your baseline measures", he says.
"If you don't know where your baselines are then the measurements that you make are meaningless."
"The thing that twigged me onto the silliness of it all was the statement that people were least happy when they were sleeping, resting, or using a home computer," he says.
"Those activities are baseline activities. We know people are perfectly happy when they're resting or sleeping."