Choose happiness! Is mind wandering unwelcome?

Choose happiness!
Does mind wandering inevitably lead to unhappiness?


Is mind wandering unwelcome?
Is mind wandering unwelcome?

Authors: Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T.

Year: 2010

Title: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Summary: I’ve taken a step back with this study (chronologically speaking) because it predates the Jazaieri et al. paper that I recently reviewed. According to Google Scholar, this investigation has been cited by other researchers over 1500 times. If you read any scientific study linked to mind wandering since 2010 you can expect to find Killingsworth & Gilbert referenced. Three reasons why this work is so popular, firstly it was a big study, recruiting 2250 participants. Secondly, it took an innovative approach to the use of technology, using an iPhone app to track and record mind wandering in ‘real world’ scenarios. Finally, the study made some very strong statements which with hindsight, have perhaps oversimplified mind wandering. In particular, the idea that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.

The full purpose of mind wandering is not yet understood, its activity is largely observed in the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a collection of anatomically separate regions that are most active when we are not engaged in a specific externally focussed task, hence our ‘default state’. The research concludes that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness and (staggeringly) even mind wandering to positive subjects doesn’t appear to improve self-reported happiness. Provided with this kind of context it’s no wonder that the idea of suppressive mind wandering approaches maintained popularity across experimental and clinical psychology. Killingsworth & Gilbert even supported their case by claiming that many religious and philosophical traditions link happiness to living in the here and now.

Buddhism and mind wandering

Many forms of meditation and mindfulness do work on training consciousness to rest in the present moment. But from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective to equate this with a conclusion that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness is somewhat misleading. Traditional meditation is often set in a wider context, undertaken for the benefit of all beings (self and other). Any merit that is accumulated from resting in the present moment is typically dedicated to others, rooting the practice in the past present and future. The idea that a thought, rather than the reaction (attachment or aversion) to the thought is the cause of unhappiness isn’t supported by the theoretical frameworks of traditional meditation systems.

Abnormally high levels of mind wandering are likely to be clinically problematic, but even today we don’t know all the functions mind wandering might have. It’s considered to be linked to the narrative we make to understand ourselves in the wider world. There isn’t evidence that the process itself brings unhappiness, it may be that the quality of our self-generated narrative rather than mind-wandering per se might be the problem. For example, 1 in 4, 14-year-old girls in the UK demonstrate symptoms of depression, and that teenage depression is correlated with social media use. Can we say that mind wandering to social media content, rather than emotions linked to social media content is the root cause of any reported unhappiness?



Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

2 thoughts on “Choose happiness! Is mind wandering unwelcome?”

  1. Most traditions accept that the “inherent” static state is one of serene joy (not emotional joy-influenced by exterior things), heightened empathy (as found in young babies), and a heightened sense of right/wrong (pleasure/pain)–as one is in the right mind to make the distinction. So by “turning off” the DMN (the goal of most traditions), you return the “higher” enlightened state. The state of Now. By turning off the DMN, you are not turning off all feelings–but you are turning off the emotional draining ones (anxiety/fear/depression). It would be wrong to say there are no feelings, which seems to be your article’s conclusion.


    1. Very interesting; many thanks for the reply. However, I have a couple of points I’d like to share.

      I’m Interested in the similarities and differences between different approaches to meditation in traditions. I think that even within individual schools, meditation is typically progressive. Moving through various mental states and traits, ultimately leading to ‘realisation’. Each method and its deployment at different stages seem to have distinct operational (cognitive) components.

      So, for example, while the primordial state is an explicit goal of many non-dual practices, it’s nearly always framed in a wider context and with good reason. For most developing practitioners, I think that traditional meditation attempts to balance intrinsic and extrinsic network activity; the notion of freedom from concepts is initially a heuristic for most of us. What comes later is more complex to describe from Western scientific perspectives.

      I’m disinclined to see my own practice as a running down of DMN or intrinsic networks but rather an embodied awareness of the relative nature of the fabrications of the intrinsic-extrinsic axis. However, I tend towards Dzogchen insights which privilege integration. Other traditions see progress in different ways.

      I need to think about this more.


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