Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Turns out that letting your mind wander may not make you so happy. So say Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in a recent article in Science.  (Membership needed to see the full article, but the results are discussed in this New York Times story.) According to the article abstract, the researchers "developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy." The researchers contacted the more than 2200 participants at random to ask what they were doing and what they were thinking about. Only about 10% of people having sex when contacted said they were thinking about something else; those participating in other activities were thinking about other things as much as 65% of the time. And thinking about things other than what one is doing apparently doesn't correlate with happiness. Of course, if you are busy doing some miserable work or are stuck in traffic, then it's understandable why you would want to think about something else. 

As a fan of flights of the imagination, I'm unhappy with this finding. Just what we think about when we think about something else may vary -- the bills, that vacation we're going to take, the person we want to sleep with -- but my guess is that those thoughts may fall into some kind of narrative structure. To one degree or another, I think lots of people have a grand narrative arc we've imagined for our lives, and we try, sometimes mightily, to arrange all our daily goings-on along that arc. Got chewed out by your boss and then fired from your job? That's just another chapter in a life full of failure; or, in another life "plot," it's the low point before your rise to greatness. Had a first date with someone you like? Maybe you project far into the future, telling your would-be grandchildren about how you met. Spinning out these stories into the past or future -- all the conversations we mentally rehearse with people, or the lives we imagine ourselves leading, or the scenes we replay in our heads -- is a ridiculously common activity, if we're to believe this Science article, or if we're just to believe our own experience. All the mental energy we put into imagining these scenarios is one reason we might have what seems like unnecessarily large brains -- we're actually living parallel lives in the future, or past. (I read that idea a few years ago, but couldn't tell you where!) 

Here's my beef: What if letting the mind wander is not just some distraction that is apart from the real activity of life, but instead is the central activity of the mind? What if all our daily goings-on -- shopping for groceries or commuting to work or checking email -- what if those are the distraction? Turn things around and perhaps it is the body that is wandering, and not the mind, which insists on doing its vital work of constructing a life story.

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