One of the most interesting uses of iPhone apps in research shows us that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (so the title of the paper goes) and that we are most happy – and least likely to mind-wander – when we are making love. [Other more colloquial terms for sex were not used, but I presume people were engaging in all sorts of shades of it.]
Here’s what they did:
The research was conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University. Gilbert happens to be one of my favorite scientists because of the important work he has pioneered related to human happiness and also because of the manner in which he has tried to share it with the world, rather than staying holed up in his office with only his data to keep him warm. You may be familiar with his book, Stumbling on Happiness. Should this level of interesting innovation continue, Killingsworth (who’s currently working on his PhD while studying with Dr. Gilbert) may be one of my new favorite scientists as well.
Track Your Happiness
Killingsworth and Gilbert developed an iPhone app called Track Your Happiness, which is described as “a new scientific research project that investigates what makes life worth living.” A few demographics are taken, and users are able to indicate how often they want to receive a notification request and in what format (text or email). Once the requests come in, people are asked a few questions about what they are doing (based off of 22 daily life activities, and an “other” option), how they are feeling and what they are thinking. As users collect enough data, they are able to track their data and see whether their happiness is linked with certain times of days, activities, or who they spend their time with.
With data from 2250 adults (58.8% male, and about 3/4 in the US, average age of 34) Killingsworth and Gilbert analyzed what people were doing, their happiness and also whether they were thinking about what they were doing or whether they were thinking about something else (mind wandering) and whether that “something else” was a pleasant or unpleasant thought.
- Mind wandering was common, occurring in 46.9% of the events sampled. It was also present in at least 30% of all activities, with one exception: making love.
- Mind wandering was more common than has been seen in lab studies, reinforcing the need for more real-world studies.
- People were less happy when their mind was wandering compared to when it was not. This was true no matter the activity.
- Even though people’s minds often wandered to pleasant topics (not just unpleasant or neutral topics), mind wandering to pleasant topics didn’t make people any happier than NOT mind wandering. Thinking about neutral topics was associated with less happiness than thinking about the present.
- The researchers also conducted time lag analyses which suggest to them that it was the mind wandering that causes the unhappiness rather than the unhappiness causing the mind wandering (although certainly they acknowledge that unhappiness can cause mind wandering, too).
- “What people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing”, they write, which perhaps explains why you can feel enormously happy having an intimate dinner with a new acquaintance, or experience total bliss when walking with a rainstorm, so long as you are present in your thoughts and experience.
What This Means
It’s encouraging that sex was the activity least likely to be subject to mind wandering. And we certainly know from considerable research that cognitive distractions during sex (which women are more prone to than men – thinking about work, school, laundry, kids’ lunches) can make for less enjoyable and less easily orgasmic sex. Killingsworth and Gilbert’s research also hints at why, as I wrote in Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, mindfulness exercises applied to sex (an emerging area of research) may be showing promise for women’s desire and arousal.
This research also serves as a reminder of how there is no good or bad technology, only good or bad uses of it in our everyday lives. Ironically, the technology (the iPhone hardware and the app software) developed to collect these fascinating data is the same technology that’s linked to so much mind wandering in our society. I already make an effort to *not* check my iPhone during even the most boring meetings because I want to appear professional and present. However, perhaps another reason to not check my iPhone during meetings is to be happier in the moment – something that would pay off more for me than what other people think of me.
We cannot all be present all of the time. But we can be in the present moment more often than we are. One woman I know recently made it a priority to spend more uninterrupted time with her adorable little son and found that it was easier to do this when they went to the park as opposed to when they were home with so many other assorted distractions. I find it easier to be present with my dog when I get on the floor and we play together compared to when she sits next to me while I’m working on my laptop.
How It Ends
The authors end their article by writing: “In conclusion, 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.”
But don’t let that be your end, just because it may be true of our species. I hope their study instead inspires a new beginning for you and for me, one that’s about being present more often. Perhaps you might feel blissfully lost as you play in the snow, paddle out on your surf board, walk through the sand, hug your best friend, kiss your partner, tousle someone’s hair, or get lost in someone’s eyes over iChat. It’s not a bad way to spend the day and, if you stay present, you might just be happier for it.
[Full article at Science, where the above & below, larger, image is also from]