Smartphone app shows a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Why a wandering mind is an unhappy mind

An intriguing paper called ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,’ was published in the journal Science a couple of years ago, and I stumbled upon it this week. It describes a smartphone app that samples people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions during the course of the day.

If you’re curious how an app can be used to mine data about mindfulness and mood, then this is the research for you!

Here’s summary of the paper:

Unlike other animals we human beings spend a lot of time thinking.

We don’t spend much time taking notice of what is going on around us. Instead we’re usually absorbed with contemplating what happened yesterday, last week, and the more distant past, and what might happen in the future, or what may never happen at all. Scientists believe “mind wandering” is the brain’s default mode of operation.

Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows us to learn, reason, and plan, it comes with an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” This is the essence of mindfulness and meditation.

Is a wandering mind an unhappy mind?

To test if the traditional teachings suggesting that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, the researchers developed an app which gathered real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities.

The app contacted participants through their iPhones at random moments during the day, presented them with questions, and recorded their answers to a database at (At the time of publication of this paper the database contained nearly a quarter of a million samples from about 5000 people from 83 different countries!!)

How often do our minds wander?

To find out how often people’s minds wandered what topics they wandered to, and how those wanderings affected their happiness three questions were asked:

  • “How are you feeling right now?” (People answered on a scale 0-100, from very bad to very good.)
  • “What are you doing right now?” (Participants were given 22 typical daily activities to choose from.)
  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” (People chose from one of four options: ‘no’; ‘yes, something pleasant’; ‘yes, something neutral’; or ‘yes, something unpleasant’.)

The analyses of 2250 adults (58.8% male, 73.9% living in the United States, mean age of 34 years) revealed three facts:

  • First, people’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing. Nearly half of the samples (46.9%) reported ‘mind-wandering’.
  • Second, people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were focussing on the task at hand. Or put another way, people were happiest when thinking about what they’re doing. If you’re washing the dishes, you’ll be happier thinking about the squeaky clean dishes than thinking about your upcoming summer holidays!
  • Third, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. It didn’t particularly matter how people spent their day. What mattered most for happiness was matching of thought to action (did someone say mindfulness?).

Author Matt Killingsworth says,

As it turns out, people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing. For example, people don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities, and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else. It’s amazing.

The paper concluded that

…a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Our very human ability to think about what is not happening in the here an now is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.

If you want to learn more, author Matt Killingsworth gives a TEDx talk describing his work that you can view here: ‘Want to be happier? Stay in the moment.

Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. Science. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  2010 Nov 12;330(6006):932. doi: 10.1126/science.1192439.

Share the love


  1. Camilla Hallstrom on July 25, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    Interesting findings, Sarah. The modern concept of mindfulness (i.e. not religious but mindfulness that is used to enhance workplace performance) is a “new” concept (to most people) and this goes to show that it can be a major investment to learn mindfulness techniques in terms of well-being. I’m curious why it is that we’re unhappier when we think about events in the past or future? I wonder if it’s because we usually think about events/things that are memorable and those events are usually negative. Or is it because our stress level is raised when not being mentally present… Anyway, thanks for the post. 🙂

    • Sarah McKay on July 28, 2015 at 10:31 am

      Yes Camilla. The current thought is that it is partly to do with psychological stress and relaxations responses. Humans are very clever at stressing over imagined events and writing scenarios and narratives! It is really quite hard to ‘be in the now’, but like anything it takes practice and I think if you have a good experience you’ll find it easier to stick to.

Leave a Comment

download my free checklist


9 Daily Habits of Highly Healthy Brains

Learn how to use neuroscience in your everyday life.