Mind-wandering vs. mindfulness

Edward Mark Vero | March 12 2015


On average, people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing right in that moment. And this mind-wandering is typically making them unhappy. 

The research by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University is described in this weeks journal ‘Science’.

“A 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 cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, events that might happen in the future, or may never end up happening at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation. 

To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 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 about something else that was either pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love. 

“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard. “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.” 

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” 

The researchers estimated 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. Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.

Balancing mind-wandering and mindfulness 

Mind-wandering is a necessary part of human function, but like everything else in life, it can get out of balance. Mind-wandering has the tip of its toes in the well of creativity. However it often creates great expectations that end up being left unfulfilled, leaving you disappointed, frustrated and/or demoralised.


It worries about things that you 

a) can’t change.  

b) may not even happen. 

c) could change if you were paying attention to the present.

Mind-wandering is your mind looking to create happiness everywhere but here. It thinks right now is boring. So it looks for all the fun that might be in the future. This leaves the present only vaguely interesting enough to keep you mildly amused. 

Truth of the matter is that the real fun is right here right now. Always imagining it in the future is bland. Trust me.


Through practice the mind learns. If you stretch your fingers enough times to play a guitar chord or use your brain to learn a foreign language, you’ll eventually end up mastering it.

If you catch your mind-wandering and bring it back to a focal point and do that enough, you’ll end up mastering that too. This is what you do every time you meditate. 

Then after some time you’ll find that right now – shopping lines, bus stops, walking on the way to work – will be interesting and full of playful opportunities. You’ll see fun everywhere, right now … 

… And then you’ll forget it – your mind will wander – because that’s just want the mind does sometimes. 

That’s alright. It’s human. And so are you.

Meditation teaches you to be ok with that too.

Edward Mark is a meditation teacher and contributor at 1 Giant Mind, changing the way people think about meditation. He blogs at Meditation Minimalism.

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