The happy upshot of this study is that it suggests a wonderfully simple prescription for greater happiness: think about what you’re doing. But be warned that like any prescription, following it is very different from just knowing it’s good for you. In addition to the usual difficulties of breaking bad or unhelpful habits, your brain may also be wired to work against your attempts stay present.
Recent fMRI scanning studies show that even when we’re quietly at rest and following instructions to think of nothing in particular, our brains settle into a conspicuous pattern of activity that corresponds to mind-wandering. This signature ‘resting’ activity is coordinated across several widespread brain areas, and is argued by many to be evidence of a brain network that is active by default. Under this view our brains climb out of the default state when we’re bombarded with input, or facing a challenging task, but tend to slide back into it once things quiet down.
Why are our brains so intent on tuning out? One possibility is that they’re calibrated for a target level of arousal. If a task is dull and can basically be done on autopilot, the brain conjures up its own exciting alternatives and sends us off and wandering. This view is somewhat at odds with the Killingsworth and Gilbert’s findings though, since subjects wandered even on ‘engaging’ activities. Another, more speculative possibility is that wandering corresponds to some important mental housekeeping or regulatory process that we’re not conscious of. Perhaps while we check out, disparate bits of memory and experience are stitched together into a coherent narrative – our sense of self.
Of course, it’s also possible that wandering isn’t really ‘for’ anything, but rather just a byproduct of a brain in a world that doesn’t punish the occasional (or even frequent) flight of fancy. Regardless of what prompts our brains to settle into the default mode, its tendency to do so may be the kiss of death for happiness. As the authors of the paper elegantly summarize their work: “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
On the plus side, a mind can be trained to wander less. With regular and dedicated meditation practice, you can certainly become much more present, mindful, and content. But you’d better be ready to work. The most dramatic benefits only really accrue for individuals, often monks, who have clocked many thousands of hours practicing the necessary skills (it’s not called the default state for nothing).
The next steps in this work will be fascinating to see, and we can certainly expect to see more results from the large data set collected by Killingsworth and Gilbert. It will be interesting to know, for example, how much people vary in their tendency to wander, and whether differences in wandering are associated with psychiatric ailments. If so, we may be able to tailor therapeutic interventions for people prone to certain cognitive styles that put them at risk for depression, anxiety, or other disorders.
In addition to the translational potential of this work, it will also be exciting to understand the brain networks responsible for wandering, and whether there are trigger events that send the mind into the wandering or focused state. Though wandering may be bad for happiness, it is still fascinating to wonder why we do it.