Is Your Wandering Mind Making You Unhappy?

November 6, 2019

All who wander are not lost, but a mind that always wanders might be less happy

If you’ve ever ventured into the worlds of mindfulness and meditation, there’s almost always a couple verbal cues that are used:

  • Focus on your breath (or other sensation)

  • In a nonjudgmental way, bring your mind back to the present moment

The reason for these instructions? The mind tends to wander… a lot.

Activities such as work, exercise, sports, engaging conversations, or reading all tend to increase our focused attention.  But what about all the time when we aren’t focused in? Can brain wandering actually be making us more unhappy?

What do the experts say?

Doctors Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard performed a study back in 2010 detailing exactly the problem I just described.  In their article “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” published in Science Magazine in November of 2010, they describe their fascinating research.  The researchers recruited 2,250 adults and linked them to a phone application they developed that randomly contacted the participants with three questions.

  • How are you feeling right now (0 to 100)

  • What are you doing right now (22 different choices)

  • Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

They found that the average brain wanders 47% of the time.

Their findings were fascinating.  First, they found most people’s minds wander a staggering 47% of the time, and that what people were doing had very little to do with the extent to which their minds wandered.

They also discovered that people were overall less happy when their minds wandered, and that the mind wandering was likely the cause of the unhappiness rather than a consequence of it. In other words, what people were thinking was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

What to do?

Unsurprisingly, having sex, exercising, and engaging in conversation tended to be associated with being more in the moment and happier overall.  Super unsurprisingly, having sex was associated with the least amount of mind wandering (unless you count my wife thinking about Chris Hemsworth, which for the sake of my own pride I don’t consider mind wandering).

But all jokes aside – here’s what to do with this info.

First, acknowledge the fact that our minds may be wired to wander, but throwing a leash on them for some direction is a useful thing when it comes to our perception of happiness.  An engaged mind is a happy mind.  If you find yourself getting locked in your head and feeling a little less happy than you would like, try engaging in the activities that boost your present centered focus.

As a gift from Sync to you, here’s a pretty great “Present Moment” playbook you might try the next time you find yourself endlessly mind wandering!


1. Plan an outdoor exercise date with your spouse or friend.

Maybe kayaking, hiking, stand up paddle boarding, or anything else outside that doesn’t involve shopping on King St. or having drinks at Red’s Tavern.

Our buddies at Coastal Expeditions are the longest-standing outdoor tourism crew in the Lowcountry, and they’ll help you curate a new experience for you and your guest in no time.

2. Before the hike, each of you make up a list of 10 things that fascinate you.

Save this list in the notes sections of your phones and don’t share them yet – we’ll come back to them later.

3. After you get back from the outdoor adventure, plan to have a meal out.

Take turns going back and forth talking about the topics that fascinate you.  The deal is that no topic can be met with judgement.  As the listener, your goal is to ask questions about what the topic is and act like an interested reporter trying to discover everything you can about the topic.


4. After your lunch (which should take at least 90 minutes if you are doing it right)  – head home.

Here is where we will separate the romantic relationships from the general friendships.  Get cleaned up and then head out for a body treatment of some kind – a massage, mani/pedi, whatever your thing is.  Even better if you’re a couple, save the money and do a couples massage at home.

5. After the body treatment, the choice becomes yours…

But I’ll remind you, the activity that resulted in the least mind wandering was sex.  So do what you want with that info.

Thanks for another read with us Sync community!

Feel free to use the comments section below to leave behind your tips and techniques for breaking free from negative mind wandering process. We’d love to hear from you! See you next time!


Modern Minds with MUSC Health

Synchronicity is a subsidiary of Modern Minds, a non-profit organization dedicated to treating and empowering mental health and wellbeing. We often partner together to offer truly integrative care for Modern Minds clients, Synchronicity members and the greater Lowcountry community.