Intriguing new research from Harvard has used trendy technology to learn that daydreaming makes people unhappy. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” says Matthew A. Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard—who was happy to focus on sharing the results of his research when I called him recently.

Dreaming Your Life Away

In 2009, Killingsworth and his colleagues launched an iPhone Web application, “Track Your Happiness” (, to study the causes of happiness in everyday life. At random intervals, they contacted 2,250 volunteers (average age 34) to see what they were doing at that moment… what they were thinking about (specifically, whether they were thinking about their current activity or something else)… and how happy they were (on a scale of 0 to 100).

Killingsworth and his team were surprised to discover that people spent nearly half their time (47%) daydreaming or thinking about things other than what they were doing. In an analysis of 250,000 responses, they also found that…

  • People’s minds were least likely to wander during sex. When asked what they had been thinking about, 90% of those making love said they had been completely engaged in that activity.
  • During every activity other than sex, people’s minds wandered at least 30% of the time. Not surprisingly, mind wandering was most common during personal grooming tasks such as brushing teeth, showering and dressing (as high as 65%) and commuting and traveling (over 60%).
  • People were happiest during sex. Participants gave sex a 90% rating on the 0-to-100 feelings scale, followed (in descending order of happiness) by exercising (about 15 points lower), conversing, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating. Personal grooming, commuting and working ranked lowest for happiness.

Be Here Now—Or Else

The rate of mind wandering was clearly lower during more enjoyable activities, but whatever people did—whether it was having sex or commuting—they were happier when focused on the matter at hand rather than thinking about something else. The psychologists found that if someone’s mind wandered away from the task at hand, a short time later (say, 15 minutes) he/she was apt to report being less happy. Crunching the numbers further, the investigators estimated that mind-wandering status was responsible for nearly 11% of a person’s state of happiness, and the nature of the current activity for only 4.6%.

These findings were published in the November 12, 2010, issue of the journal Science.

Fix Your Focus

Mind wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness, says Killingsworth—in the vast majority of cases (outside of sex), it was a better indicator than the activity they were engaged in. Given this conclusion, I asked him what advice he had for my readers. Is this, in simplest terms, a wake-up call that if you want to be as happy as you can be, you really should try to “live in the moment?” The study results suggest that this is the case, Killingsworth replied, but more research is needed to know for sure and to know how best to do so. In the meantime, the study is continuing. More than 5,000 people are now using the researchers’ iPhone Web app, and anyone with an iPhone can participate.

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