Wandering Minds and Happiness

(Josh Cohen) #1

This might interest some people: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation (1–3). Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have 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.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?


I don’t think the point of Zen, for example, is to have a happy mind…that’s a western psychological extraction for consumption.

But besides that, even fully enlightened living isn’t restricted just to what is happening ‘externally’ at the moment. The one-mind can think of future events, for example, since that is then a current happening.

So I think a blissful mind (which would be a side-effect of enlightenment) depends not so much the content of the mind, but on its unity. Although probably the greatest joy would be to be present with ‘external’ happenings


This study reminds me a lot of some things I read in The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living by Dr. Amit Sood. Dr. Sood talks about the drawbacks of the ‘default mode’ and encourages a 21st-century approach to mindfulness and meditation.