It turns out that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And these days our minds are always off somewhere. There’s a lot to think about—politics, pandemics, extreme weather, oh my!
According to a Harvard study conducted by Dr. Matt Killingsworth, our minds wander around 46.9 percent of the time, regardless of what activity we’re doing. It’s hard to even imagine a day when our minds don’t wander at least a little bit. But all that time we spend in our heads adds up, leading us to be less happy overall. How do we curb mind wandering and create a happier mind?
What Is Mind-Wandering?
Mind-wandering is defined as thoughts unrelated to whatever task or activity we’re currently engaged in. Our mind can wander to positive, negative, or neutral thoughts. When our mind is wandering, thoughts are more often focused on the future, but when we’re feeling sad, our mind-wandering may switch to focusing more on the past. In general, mind-wandering tends to be related to our current life concerns or self-relevant goals.
Regardless of what our minds are wandering to, being in our heads can make it hard for us to focus or concentrate, and frequent mind-wandering puts us in a worse mood. Perhaps this is because it’s human nature to focus on the negative — we just have an easier time thinking about the worst possible outcomes and we have a harder time thinking of the best possible outcomes. That means when we get stuck in our heads, our thoughts are more likely to be negative. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, mind-wandering is also more common among people with more depression symptoms.
Luckily, mind-wandering is something that we can control! With some effort, we can pull ourselves out of our heads and back into the present moment. By taking the right actions, we can lessen the distressing thoughts that often come from mind-wandering. If you think mind-wandering is getting you down and you want to know how to be happier, try these six tips for pulling back a wandering mind.
1. Self-Reflect on Your Mind -Wandering
Pop quiz: How often do you have thoughts running through your head? If it’s more often than you’d like, try bringing yourself back to the present moment by pausing and taking a few long deep breaths. You could also try doing a moderately challenging activity, something that keeps your mind occupied enough that your mind has a harder time wandering. Whenever possible, just try not to create stories in your mind, ruminate on the past, or play out future scenarios. Instead, focus your attention outward on what’s going on in the real world.
2. If You’re a Mind Wanderer, Stay Positive
If you’re still struggling to shut down mind-wandering, try to stay positive. Even though research suggests that mind-wandering is bad for happiness, “positive” mind-wandering seems to be the least bad. In fact, mind-wandering about positive things tends to make us just as happy as not mind-wandering at all. If you find yourself stuck in your thoughts, try to shift them to positive thoughts, for example by practicing gratitude, savoring the moment, or reframing the situation to find silver linings.
3. Don’t Multitask
You may already know that multitasking can hurt your productivity. But it turns out that if one of the things we’re multitasking is “thinking” about something—thinking about our to-do list, daily stresses, or even something neutral—we’re also likely to be less happy. According to Killingsworth, we’d actually be better off multitasking several actions than multitasking actions and thoughts. The next time you find your mind-wandering while doing other tasks, try to return your attention to the task at hand.
4. Find Things to Do, Not Things to Think About
We know from research that engaging in positive activities—for example, socializing, exercising, or making love—makes us happy. But if we just spend our time thinking about doing these things and not actually doing them, we won’t get the positive emotional boost. That’s because thinking about an experience is almost never more enjoyable than actually having that experience. Go and do things, have enjoyable experiences, and watch your happiness blossom.
5. Find Flow as Often as You Can
Flow is the mental state of being completely absorbed, focused, and present in whatever you’re doing. Research on flow has found that people tend to experience flow as positive and enjoyable. Perhaps this is because mind-wandering has come to a complete halt and we are fully living in the moment. Whenever possible, try to do activities that you find engaging. You’ll give yourself an easier time curbing your mind-wandering and growing your happiness.
6. Boost Attentional Focus
Michael Hobbiss and colleagues suggest that reduced attentional focus is what leads to mind-wandering and other distractions. Even though many of us don’t think of attention and focus as skills that can be improved, neuroscientists have found that your brain can be trained in ways that strengthen attention, aid focus, and reduce mind-wandering. And because mind-wandering goes hand in hand with a bad mood, boosting our attentional skills can not only help us stay focused but also increase our happiness. Try to improve your attention, even if only in small ways, to boost your mood a little bit every day.
Also published by Think-Now.com.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.
Poerio, G. L., Totterdell, P., & Miles, E. (2013). Mind-wandering and negative mood: Does one thing really lead to another?. Consciousness and cognition, 22(4), 1412-1421.
Norris, C. J., Larsen, J. T., Crawford, L. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). Better (or worse) for some than others: Individual differences in the positivity offset and negativity bias. Journal of Research in Personality, 45(1), 100-111.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer, Dordrecht.
Hobbiss, M. H., Fairnie, J., Jafari, K., & Lavie, N. (2019). Attention, mindwandering, and mood. Consciousness and cognition, 72, 1-18.