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The Secret Power of Mind-Wandering

A new meta-analysis investigated how mind-wandering affects emotional well-being

Key points

  • Mind-wandering is common and almost everyone experiences it.
  • A new meta-analysis integrated data on mind-wandering and emotions from more then 23,000 volunteers.
  • Mind-wandering can lead to negative emotions but the content of the thoughts was an important factor.
  • Mind-wandering with positive thoughts led to positive emotions.

While doing a particularly boring task at work or home, have you ever stopped thinking about what you were doing, and started reminiscing about your last vacation or another event that made you happy? Or do you sometimes daydream about meeting Taylor Swift or whoever is your favorite pop star instead of focusing on work?

Such examples of mind-wandering are quite common. Almost everyone at some point experiences that their thoughts drift away from the task at hand and the immediate environment to something else that is not prompted by whatever happens in the situation.

How does mind-wandering affect our feelings?

One interesting question is how mind-wandering affects our emotions.

On the one hand, it could be argued that mind-wandering could make us feel bad. Thinking about the sandy beaches of Hawaii instead of a crucial work email surely is not positive for work performance. Thus, one could have a bad conscience about mind-wandering at work since it may imply a lack of self-control.

On the other hand, it could be argued that mind-wandering may make us feel better in some situations. For example, when Uncle Greg is telling the same annoying story for the twelfth time at a family reunion, zoning out and thinking about the best brownie recipe may not be the worst thing. In that case, mind-wandering may help regulate negative emotions and create positive emotions in an unpleasant situation and thus prevent a larger conflict at the reunion that nobody wants.

A new study on how mind-wandering affects emotional well-being

To clarify how mind-wandering affects emotional well-being, a team of scientists led by Julia W. Y. Kam from the University of Calgary now published a new meta-analysis in the prestigious scientific journal Psychological Bulletin (Kam and co-workers, 2024).

A meta-analysis is a statistical integration of previously published studies. It has the advantage that data from many more volunteers than in typical studies can be analyzed. This makes the results of meta-analyses particularly robust and trustworthy.

In the study, Kam and co-workers (2024) integrated data from more than 23,000 volunteers using advanced statistical methods. Importantly, they considered several factors that may influence the association between mind-wandering and emotional well-being.

Mind-wandering and emotions: Positive thoughts make us feel better

Overall, the meta-analysis results revealed a negative association between mind-wandering and emotional well-being. Thus, on average mind-wandering makes us feel worse.

However, two factors affected this relationship.

First, the emotional content of the thoughts experienced during mind-wandering. When the unprompted thoughts were negative (for example, experiencing out-of-context fears or worries) the effect on emotional well-being was also negative. However, when the content of the unprompted thoughts was positive (for example, thinking about that fantastic vacation), the effect on emotional well-being was also positive.

Second, intentionality played a major role. If we intentionally let our mind wander (for example, since that task at hand is super boring), the effect on emotional well-being is more positive than when mind-wandering happens unintentionally.

Thus, taken together, intentionally letting our minds wander to experience positive thoughts makes us feel better. However, unintentionally experiencing unwanted negative thoughts makes us feel worse.


Kam JWY, Wong AY, Thiemann RF, Hasan F, Andrews-Hanna JR, Mills C. On the relationship between unprompted thought and affective well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2024 Apr 15. doi: 10.1037/bul0000428.

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