Does mind wandering really cause unhappiness?

Does mind wandering really make you unhappy? There seems to be quite a bit of research suggesting this is so. Some of the important research on the topic used experience sampling methodology (ESM). However, some more ESM research suggests that the relationship might not be exactly how we thought.

Some researchers from the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex decided to delve deeper into this dilemma by using a smartphone app to ask participants about whether or not they were mind wandering, and then some other questions about what was happening.

If the participants were mind wandering, they also answered

  1. Whether what they were thinking about was happy or sad (or calm/anxious)
  2. Whether what they were thinking about was in the future/past
  3. Whether or not their thoughts pertained to the “current concerns in [their] life.”
  4. Their mood before mind wandering.
  5. Fifteen minutes later, they were, again, asked about their mood.

The participants were asked this set of questions six times per day for seven days.

These were the results:

  1. Negative mood predicted whether or not a person would mind wander, but mind wandering did not predict future negative mood.

This is in contrast to previous studies that suggested that mind wandering leads to negative mood. However, the previous studies only asked people one to three times per day about their mind wandering and mood, and did not follow up to ask about their mood later.

  1. What a person was feeling previous to mind wandering predicted the kinds of things the person would think about when mind wandering.

So, if a person was sad or anxious previous to mind wandering, they would likely think about sad or anxious things. And, if a person was sad and thought about sad things, they felt sadder when they were asked about their mood fifteen minutes later.

  1. Thinking about the past or future was linked to sad or anxious thoughts, respectively.

These results are interesting because thinking about the past (i.e. rumination) can generally be related to depression. The authors were “cautious” to draw this conclusion, but thinking about the future (worry) is related to anxiety. As a result, these observations may be related to sage knowledge about these two conditions.

  1. Mood was also related to whether or not a person would think about present concerns.

And these could, also, influence one’s mood after thinking about these concerns soon after.

Although this study comments on its limitations, and that they cannot relate mood, concerns, etc. to cause mind wandering, it does show that experience sampling can show a more detailed picture of processes that are being investigated currently.

Read more:

Poerio, G. L., Totterdel P., Miles E. (2013). Mind-wandering and negative mood: does one thing really lead to another? Conscious Cognition 22(4):1412-21.


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