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Why Does a Wandering Mind Lead to Unhappiness?

Depressed woman having headache and stress

How to Mitigate the Pain

Think about a time you were washing the dishes or taking a shower. While partaking in the activity, did your mind start to wander? Did you start planning what you would do afterward? For example, all the things you still wanted to accomplish with your day besides the current project. If so, do you remember how you felt during those moments? Anxiousness, unhappiness, or nothing at all? If experiencing unhappiness was the case, do not feel bad; it is common to encounter that emotion when your mind wanders.

           A 2010 study by Killingsworth & Gilbert with over 2000 participants found some interesting findings. Participants were contacted through their iPhones randomly during their waking hours, presented them with questions, and recorded their answers to a database. In its conclusion, it was found that a roving mind happened 47% of the time and was associated with lower happiness.

           A logical question then becomes, if a roving mind causes unhappiness, why do we seem predisposed to partake in the activity?

Upset woman lying on leather sofa
By Victoria Akvarel

           It’s that damn evolution thing again! Certain parts of our brain turn on when we have time to think to ourselves without significant distractions (medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex). It’s called the default mode network. Why do we have it in the first place? It’s there for us to plan, absorb memories, and visualize without doing.

           What are the drawbacks? It can cause unnecessary stress due to anxiousness and rumination.

           Does this sound familiar? An unexpected event happens. Due to this event, in private moments by yourself, you start to imagine all possible negative scenarios that may occur afterward. Only to let time go by, and none of those things ever happen. I’m not lecturing to anyone about this phenomenon; I write from experience.

           A long time ago, I interacted with an individual who had bedbugs. I knew this individual had this issue ahead of time, so I was already mentally ready. As our meeting ended, the individual got up to leave; as he did, I watched a little bug fall from his jacket. I was in disbelief; I didn’t think I would see a bedbug. I informed one of my associates what had just happened; this person didn’t believe me, so she went into the room, caught the bug, picked it up with a pencil, and flushed it down the toilet. At that point, I lost it and went home to change clothes.

           Before getting in my car, I took off my shoes and put them in a plastic bag. I read online that was what you were supposed to do if you were concerned about having bedbugs. I ruminated all the way home in my car about a possible bedbug infestation. All the chemicals I would have to buy to debug myself, what would those chemicals do to my body? I thought about every possible unfavorable circumstance that could happen. Once home, I took off all my clothes before walking in the door and immediately put them in the dryer.

Frustrated man with hands on head
Lucas Pezeta

           However, at this point, the executive functioning part of my brain finally kicked in and brought me back to reality. If I had it, I had it; there was nothing else I could do at that point. Ruminating was only making it worse. Also, it wasn’t like I switched chairs with the individual, and we didn’t meet for that long. There was no rational way I could have gotten bedbugs from our interaction, but I nearly gave myself a heart attack worrying about something that would never materialize.

           My story illustrates a perplexing problem for us, if our wiring leads us to react this way, what hope do we have? Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) mentions staying in the present moment as the antidote to mind wandering and, citing many religious traditions and other philosophical backgrounds suggesting staying in the “here and now” as much as possible is the answer. Whatever activity helps one develop self-awareness is another logical conclusion that could assist with addressing a roving mind.

           Although try as we may, there is no way for any of us to have perfect lives. There are more paradoxes than absolute answers. Mind wandering is another example of that fact. We must have the ability to plan and incorporate essential memories. That is why we evolved with that capability. Many of human beings’ essential inventions require thinking about them in detail in our free time. As with anything in life, a side effect exists; for this ability, we can ruminate and worry about things that might not occur.  

           The best bet for us as human beings is not to seek the elimination of mind wandering (probably would not be possible) but mitigate it in adverse situations. Once we realize that we have done everything possible around a specific issue, reminding ourselves that additional rumination on the topic will make us unhappy.

            Life no doubt will deal us difficult moments; there is no need for us to add on more miserable times. Take my story as inspiration, do not let the bedbugs bite, especially when you do not have any in the first place!

Vertis Williams is a Positive Habits Life Coach and a Mindfulness Trainer. He is a regular presenter at employee and team-development events. Contact him to request more info on his Workshops or on his Coaching Services! Click HERE to Request a Complimentary Habit Coaching Session!

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