Nov. 11, 2010 -- Whether in line at the supermarket or sitting in traffic on the highway, the human mind is prone to wander at the slightest sign of boredom.
Using an iPhone application that prompts users to answer survey questions about their mental state throughout the day, researchers at Harvard University tracked how frequently the minds of 2,250 U.S. adults wandered and how their moods changed accordingly.
While past research on happiness often relies on retrospective reporting -- people trying to remember their mood at past moments -- the real-time responses made possible by this kind of smartphone technology may be the next big thing for tracking behaviors, mood, and mental state, researchers say. This study may serve as proof of concept for using iPhones as a cheap and effective means of collecting data in the future.
Based on self-reported mind wandering and self-gauged levels of happiness collected via subjects' phones, researchers found that people reported being significantly less happy when their minds wandered than when they were focused on the task at hand.
"The human capacity that underlies our ability to mind wander is incredibly important," says Matthew Killingsworth, the lead researcher and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University. "It allows us to plan for the future, process the past, imagine things that could never occur, but at the same time, the data shows that when people use this capacity it reduces their happiness."
Daydreaming was a surprisingly frequent practice -- subjects reported meandering thoughts nearly half of the time they were questioned -- but this state was consistently associated with a lower mood, even when subjects were thinking about pleasant things, researchers found.
Until recently, daydreaming or mind wandering was often thought of as an idle practice that distracted the dreamer from the task at hand. Recent research in psychology and neuroscience is beginning to reveal not only how common daydreaming is, but what an essential and beneficial purpose it serves in our mental functioning.
"You're brain is actually incredibly active when you are daydreaming. It's an intense mental state," says Jonah Lehrer, author of "How We Decide" and "Proust was a Neuroscientist." "It's also our default. We instantly slip into this when we are the least bit bored, and we are just beginning to understand why this is."
Past research has shown that those who daydream more score higher on creativity tests, Lehrer says, and there is reason to believe that mind wandering serves an important social function because it allows us to reprocess how we behaved, how our actions affected others and how we want to proceed in the future.
But while daydreaming brings with it cognitive benefits, this study suggests it also might come with an emotional cost.
For now, researchers can only speculate why mind wandering might be a bummer, but it may have to do with the fact that a wandering mind is often a worrying one, one that is not living in the moment, Killingworth says.
"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.' These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind," the authors write in the study.
Insofar as daydreaming pulls us out of the present, this may explain the connection. "Clearly there is lots of evidence that when we're immersed in the world, doing something we love, we are our happiest," Lehrer says, "and daydreaming takes us away from that."
Psychological Research: There's an App for That
This study is the first of what may be many using "TrackYourHappiness.org," a smartphone application developed as part of Killingsworth's research to gather experience data from smartphone users, both for research purposes and to help individuals track which activities affect their happiness.
"Part of the study beyond data collection involves giving results back to people to help them identify the source of some of their own happiness or unhappiness," Killingsworth says.
Text Message or Survey Prompt?
The application represents the next generation of tools for what psychologists call "experience sampling," in which people are probed in the moment about their state of mind. In the past, experience sampling has used specially designed beepers and other cumbersome and expensive technology, but with Killingsworth's "track your happiness" app, researchers can use the smartphones people already own in collecting data.
Reporting one's own mood to researchers is often difficult and unreliable because subjects are asked to remember how they felt last week, or in general, but collecting this data in real time, as the application does, is the "gold standard" of happiness data, Killingsworth says.
Lehrer says that the iPhone application can expand the traditional data set for research into happiness. "Right now, 99 percent of all studies you read are about undergraduates attending elite universities in the western world. To the extent that we can use these new gadgets to get beyond that sample, this technology is incredibly important," he says.
"It also allows us to track behavior, thoughts, and feelings in people's real lives as opposed to in a contrived laboratory situation," says Simine Vazire, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Vazire says that combining such methods with more objective data collection, such as using gadgets that record a subject's environment throughout the day, may be the next direction for experience sampling.