Why Mind Wandering Can Be So Miserable, According to Happiness Experts

We still don’t know why our minds seem so determined to exit the present moment, but researchers have a few ideas

Researchers have found that when our minds wander, our moods tend to suffer. (BetterBeReal / Stockimo / Alamy)
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For you, it could be the drive home on the freeway in stop-and-go traffic, a run without headphones or the time it takes to brush your teeth. It’s the place where you’re completely alone with your thoughts—and it’s terrifying. For me, it’s the shower.

The shower is where I’m barraged with all the “what-ifs,” the imagined catastrophes, the endless to-do list. To avoid them, I’ve tried everything from shower radio and podcasts to taking a bath so I can watch an iPad. I’ve always thought this shower-dread was just my own neurosis. But psychological research is shedding insight into why our minds tend to wander without our consent—and why it can be so unpleasant.

Scientists, being scientists, sometimes refer to the experience of mind-wandering as “stimulus-independent thought.” But by any name, you know it: It’s the experience of arriving at work with no memory of the commute. When you’re engaged in mundane activities that require little attention, your brain drifts off like a balloon escaping a child’s hand—traveling to the future, ruminating on the past, generating to-do lists, regrets and daydreams. 

In the last 15 years, the science of mind wandering has mushroomed as a topic of scholarly study, thanks in part to advances in brain imaging. But for a long time, it was still difficult to see what people’s brains were doing outside the lab. Then, when smartphones came on the scene in the late 2000s, researchers came up with an ingenious approach to understanding just how often the human brain wanders in the wilds of modern life.

As it turns out, our brains are wily, wild things, and what they do when we’re not paying attention has major implications for our happiness. 

In 2010, Matt Killingsworth, then a doctoral student in the lab of happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, designed an iPhone app that pinged people throughout the day, asking what they were experiencing at that very moment. The app asked questions like these, as paraphrased by Killingsworth:

1. How do you feel, on a scale ranging from very bad to very good?

2. What are you doing (on a list of 22 different activities, including things like eating, working and watching TV)?

3. Are you thinking about something other than what you're currently doing?

Killingsworth and Gilbert tested their app on a few thousand subjects to find that people’s minds tended to wander 47 percent of the time. Looking at 22 common daily activities including working, shopping and exercising, they found that people’s minds wandered the least during sex (10 percent of the time) and the most during grooming activities (65 percent of the time)—including taking a shower. In fact, the shower appears to be especially prone to mind wandering because it requires relatively little thought compared to something like cooking.

Equally intriguing to researchers was the effect of all that mind wandering on people’s moods: Overall, people were less happy when their minds wandered. Neutral and negative thoughts seemed to make them less happy than being in the moment, and pleasant thoughts made them no happier. Even when people were engaged in an activity they said they didn’t like—commuting, for example—they were happier when focused on the commute than when their minds strayed.

What’s more, people’s negative moods appeared to be the result, rather than the cause, of the mind wandering. Recently, I asked Killingsworth why he thought mind wandering made people unhappy. “When our mind wanders, I think it really blunts the enjoyment of what it is that were doing,” he told me.

For most, the shower in and of itself is not an unpleasant experience. But any pleasure we might derive from the tactile experience of the hot water is muted, because our minds are elsewhere. Even when our thoughts meander to pleasant things, like an upcoming vacation, Killingsworth says the imagined pleasure is far less vivid and enjoyable than the real thing.

Plus, in daily life we rarely encounter situations so bad that we really need the mental escape that mind wandering provides. More often, we’re daydreaming away the quotidian details that make up a life. “I’ve failed to find any objective circumstances so bad that when people are in their heads they’re actually feeling better,” Killingsworth told me. “In every case they’re actually surprisingly happier being in that moment, on average.”

When I told Killingsworth I spend my time in the shower imagining catastrophes, he wasn't surprised. More than a quarter of our mental meanderings are to unpleasant topics, he’s found. And the vast majority of our musings are focused on the future, rather than the past. For our ancestors, that ability to imagine and plan for upcoming dangers must have been adaptive, he says. Today, it might help us plan for looming deadlines and sources of workplace conflict.

But taken to an extreme in modern day life, it can be a hell of an impediment. “The reality is, most of the things we’re worrying about are not so dangerous,” he said.

In some cases, mind wandering does serve a purpose. Our minds might “scan the internal or external environment for things coming up we may have to deal with,” says Claire Zedelius, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara who works in the lab of mind wandering expert Jonathan Schooler. Mind wandering may also be linked to certain kinds of creativity, and in particular to a creativity “incubation period” during which our minds are busy coming up with ideas, Schooler’s lab has found. 

It’s unclear how our tendency to drift is affected by the diversions and distractions of our smartphones. As Killingsworth pointed out, all those distractions—podcasts, email, texts and even happiness trackers—may mean we’re effectively mind wandering less. But it may also be that “our capacity to direct our attention for sustained periods gets diminished, so that then when we’re in a situation that’s not completely engaging, maybe we have a greater propensity to start mind wandering.”

I took up mindfulness meditation a few years ago, a practice which has made me much more aware of how I’m complicit in my own distress. For about 15 minutes most days, I sit in a chair and focus on the feeling of my breath, directing myself back to the physical sensation when my mind flits away. This has helped me notice how where I go when I mind wander—away from the moment, toward imagined future catastrophes that can’t be solved.

Cortland Dahl, who studies the neuroscience of mind wandering and has been meditating for 25 years, told me that he was six months into daily meditation practice when he witnessed a change in the way he related to the present moment. “I noticed I just started to enjoy things I didn’t enjoy before,” like standing in line, or sitting in traffic, he says. “My own mind became interesting, and I had something to do—‘Okay, back to the breath.’” Killingsworth’s findings help explain this, said Dahl, a research scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds.

“We tend to think of suffering as being due to a circumstance or a thing that’s happening—like, we’re physically in pain,” he says. “And I think what this research points to is that oftentimes, it’s not actually due to that circumstance but much more to the way we relate to that.”

Killingsworth is still gathering data through Trackyourhappiness.org, which now has data from more than 100,000 people, and he plans to publish more papers based on his findings. He says the lesson he’s taken from his research so far is that we human beings spend lots of time and effort fixing the wrong problem. “A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to optimize the objective reality of our lives,” he told me. “But we don’t spend a lot of time and effort trying to optimize where our minds go.”

A few months ago, I decided to try mindful showering. If I could observe the mental script and divert myself back to breath during meditation, I figured, perhaps I could divert myself back to the present moment while washing my hair. Each time I do it, there’s a brief moment of dread when I step into the shower without a podcast playing. Then, I start to pay attention. I try to notice one thing each time, whether it’s the goose bumps that rise when the hot water first hits, or the false urgency of the thoughts that still come. They demand I follow them, but they’re almost always riddles that can’t be solved.

The trick is in recognizing the illusion—ah yes, there’s that ridiculous clown car of anxiety coming down the road again. The saving grace, when I can manage to focus, is the present moment. 

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