Daydreams may distract you from tackling unpleasant matters, but they can also take an emotional toll, according to a new study by two Harvard psychologists. The researchers, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, tracked the mental states of over 2,000 people with the help of a mood-tracking iPhone app. The results, published in the journal Science, show that people who focused on a specific task were usually happier than those who let their minds wander. What does this mean for the perpetually distracted? Here's a brief guide to the findings and their implications:
How did the study work?
2,255 people of varying ages and nationalities signed up through the website Track Your Happiness. About three times a day, an iPhone app prompted the participants to report in on "what they were doing and feeling," and asked users whether they were focusing on the task at hand or becoming distracted.
What were the most interesting findings?
A whopping 47 percent of the time, people reported that their minds were wandering; that rate dropped to 30 percent during only one activity: Sex. Interruptions in focus affected happiness levels, report researchers: "Episodes of mind-wandering tended to precede bouts of low mood, but not vice versa, suggesting that the former caused the latter."
Why is daydreaming so bad for you?
Ruminating almost automatically conjures up negative emotions, it seems. Even "when the mind wanders to a happy memory, it tends to eventually turn back to things that aren't quite as positive," says psychologist Kelly McGonical, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report. It's all part of the brain's "default mode," which works by "contemplating the past to learn from it, the future to prepare for it, or things in the present to see what needs to be fixed," according to Killingsworth, the study's co-author.
Is there an upside to distraction?
Though it may correlate to low mood, "mind-wandering is critical in planning and problem-solving," and evidence suggests it's an "important source of creativity," says psychology professor Jonathan Schooler, as quoted by Boston.com. Plus, this study only covers short-term happiness, which is not always the most relevant metric.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- 10 things you need to know today: September 30, 2014
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- Are hedge funds doomed?
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
Subscribe to the Week