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  • Writer's picturePeter Stadalsky

Why Mind-Wandering is Killing Your Happiness

You may think the leading cause of unhappiness is misfortune; or maybe bad health, the death of a relationship or filing for bankruptcy. The cultural consensus is that our happiness is determined by our surrounding circumstances. We believe that contentment is a specific formula:

superfluous income + ideal spouse + successful children + nice home = happy on the inside.

This magical recipe for happiness implies that if you replicate these circumstances, you should be happy. There is only one problem: it doesn’t work.

Science backs it up!

A scientist by the name of Matthew Killingsworth Ph.D gathered some striking research that defies the magical recipe theory. He invented a smartphone app called Track Your Happiness. Essentially, the app asks you 3 questions several times a day, to track your level of happiness. The questions are:

What is your level of happiness?

What are you doing?

Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

Track Your Happiness app collects data on how you’re feeling during a certain activity. Most importantly it directs your attention to where your thoughts are. You can find Matthew Killingsworth’s app here if you would like to try it on your smartphone.

In his study, thousands of people’s least favorite activity was commuting to work. Even in this dreaded situation, participants were drastically happier when they simply focused on the drive as opposed to mind-wandering about other things. And based on his research of 15,000 people in 80 countries, our minds wander on average 47% of the time. That is half our life!

But here’s the kicker: does mind-wandering cause unhappiness or does unhappiness cause mind-wandering? The data showed that no matter what the activity, positive or negative, people are significantly less happy when their mind is focused on something other than the task

in front of them.

Why does our brain function like this?

Through evolution we have developed an essential part in the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This adaptation allows us to plan out events and prevents us from making huge mistakes - it lets us project forward so we can make rational decisions. No one has ever had to make garlic-flavored gummy bears because we know that they will taste like garbage,

thanks to the prefrontal cortex.

The issue with the prefrontal cortex is that we overstep its beneficial purpose. A major malfunction of our projective thinking is worrying, which produces anxiety. Constructive projection is healthy - it prevents us from making impulsive mistakes. Obsessive projection is unhealthy - it destroys our ability to enjoy what is in front of us and creates unhappiness.

During a career change my financial security plummeted. I had some constructive projections: goal setting, actions to achieve those goals, and a routine. When all that didn’t work out in 3 days the obsessive projections started to sprout up. I speculated the million ways my career wouldn’t work out and the hardships I would endure. I juggled the heavy variables of my imagined demise, fumbling for the right formula to solve my problem. At no point did I reach an epiphany and think,

"Wow! I’m glad I did this. I really figured everything out and now I feel much better."

Rather I was preoccupied with worry and didn’t enjoy happy times with my girlfriend and family. My mind was wandering. And that’s how your brain works. We are very sorry, You’re Screwed.

That would be a terrible ending. Luckily there is a solution, read on.

The good news: practices can create mind-presence.

Slow Down

In a culture where faster is better, slowing down is straight into the headwinds. I almost got ran over on the Chicago interstate for going 5MPH over the limit - wasn’t fast enough. We try to fit 25 hours of duties into a 24-hour day. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitan’s study found that

multi-tasking linked to cortisol production - the stress hormone. Our busy lives and busy brains torment the peacekeeper sitting within us.

Slowing Down doesn’t assume quitting your job or selling your automobile. Rather we can look at how we respond to life’s stressful situations: tackling one mountain at a time, not taking on more than you can handle, leaving 10 minutes early, or getting more rest. Slowing down actually makes you more productive, more concentrated, less stressed and less likely to make mistakes. We’ve got a short time to enjoy our one life. Slow down enough to catch the view.


Simplifying life can be extraordinarily difficult when your schedule is overflowing. Some people's calendars don’t have a spare minute between the alarm clock and passing out on top of the covers. Feeling constantly rushed or short on time is a classic symptom of over-complexity. Life is simple for complex people. In the words of George Carlin, “Life is not that complicated. You get up, go to work, eat three meals, take one good shit and go back to bed.”

Simplifying our life to what is important slows down the inner-chaos. My good friend says, “I was trying to hit home runs in too many areas of my life.” Decide the few things that are most valuable to yourself and putting your energy into those. If you spread yourself too thin, you’re going to tear. A starting point is to write out all the places you spend your time. If something feels like a waste of time, then consider cutting that out of your life. Unless it’s your child,

then maybe seek therapy.

Reduce Distractions

Another reason we mind-wander is distraction. Culturally, we’ve become addicted to constant stimuli and mini-dopamine rushes. When your cell phone makes that little vibration in your pocket, for a split second you get that chill up your spine. You probably have it now just thinking about it. Our brains are addicted to cell notifications, television, YouTube, music, conversation and noise.

Quitting every form of distraction is not necessary and not even possible. A solution is to reduce the noise and distractions. Start being mindful of how often you check your phone or the compulsion to put the T.V. or radio on for background noise. People hate silence because it forces them to deal with their thoughts and worries. But the noise only temporarily drowns out the mental-commotion, it doesn’t eradicate it. Reduce the amount of unconscious distractions and you will increase your levels of calm.

"Check in” with Yourself"

For a decade I’ve used the technique of “checking in with myself.” What this means is that every time I feel anxious, uncomfortable, irritable, impatient, worried, angry and so on, I take a deep breath and pause. Then I look inward and monitor what kind of thoughts I am having. This is where I can begin to differentiate between constructive projection and obsessive projection.

When I’m distraught I discovered my thoughts are littered with self-pity, negativity and fear. They are always compulsive in nature, wandering around in the past or future. When I catch myself, I can ask if these thoughts are productive for what I’m focusing on now. If not, I’ve got to draw myself back into what sits in front of me.


Meditation has been used for thousands of years to help people control their wandering mind and create a peaceful mental environment. Reflect on a moment when you were overtaken by a mountain, beach or sunset. Or that moment when you visited a new place and were in complete awe of the cultural differences. Or that moment when everybody laughed together and you felt connected with everyone in the room. In that moment, you were present, observing without constant mental-commentary. That is meditation.

A consistent meditation practice creates a healthy mental environment for present-moment situations to occur. A farmer doesn’t make corn grow. He simply creates an ideal environment for corn to grow and it happens naturally. Like the farmer, you can invest in practices that set your mind up to “be here now.” The more you practice meditation, the more frequently you’ll naturally experience complete presence.. If you don’t know how to meditate or if you find it difficult then check out 5 Easy Tricks to Meditation.


Reducing mind-wandering will not solve every single problem you have. But slowing down and having more peace makes life’s problems significantly easier to solve. Living a more mindful life brings us closer to the present moment. You won’t look back on life and feel satisfied by how full your calendar was, how many hours you worked, or how many episodes of House you watched. You will be grateful for the precious moments you spent with those around you. So if you are neck-deep in mayhem and distraction start here:

  • Slow Down

  • Simplify

  • Reduce Distractions

  • Check in with Yourself

  • Practice Meditation

Happiness is not a sign posted on top of a mountain that reads, “you have arrived.” When you get to the peak the sign actually says, “next peak 17 miles.” Happiness is the hike along the trail. There is no invisible line you cross and then happiness remains uninterrupted. You face the struggles of uphill trudges and enjoy the downhill stretches. This is happiness,

make sure you are there for it.

Sources - Slowing down - Track Your Happiness app - NPR TEDX Radio Hour - Carl Honore in praise of slowness TED Talk - Matthew Killingsworth Want to be happier? Stay in the moment TED Talk’s%20Dangerous%20and%20It%20Doesn’t%20Really%20Exist%20Truthdig.pdf - Multi-tasking reserch study

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