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
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 7 of the scariest spiders in existence
- Why isn't 'Arkansas' pronounced like 'Kansas'?
- Internet piracy isn't killing Hollywood
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
- This 1,600-year-old Viking war game is still awesome
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- It's time for the police to rethink 'shoot-to-kill'
- Is the Christian music industry liberalizing on gay marriage?
Subscribe to the Week