mind-wandering makes you unhappy. or is it this iPhone application that asks your whereabouts when you finally conclude with your date?

I’ve been thinking to this post and the introductory one for the last 5 days. When walking and when on the bus. I also let my mind imagine how it would be to kiss this man I am currently fancying. I think I also thought back to my best friend’s visit and smiled to that. Surely I am unhappy. Indeed according to a paper by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert (published in Science about two weeks ago), “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. The second I finished reading about this in the Harvard Gazette, I had to check out the paper itself. There was a blatant conflict between my own experience and the results. I am a mind-wanderer by essence; my mind doesn’t even wander but skips, bounces. But I feel fully happy about this. Moments where my mind wanders, e.g. on the bus, are most often prepping for my work or some blog posts. While walking I love sometimes escaping into a fantasy where I would kiss this charming man. I mean, what else is there to do than mind-wander when you walk? Is that such a costly process that I need to stay focused? And when I am grooming, what’s the harm if I mind-wander? I have had many ideas in the shower; and, as much as for walking, I don’t think brushing my teeth needs that much of my attention. In short I was very sceptical.

Plus, I have always had a hard spot for Science. I found a bit paradoxical that to publish in this journal, you have to neglect what is precisely one of the scientific pillars, i.e. replicability. Science papers have to be so short that it is hard to fully grasp the method and not to finish your reading with many questions. I know that there is no perfect paper and that we will always forget a detail that will interest one and one only reader. But really, unless you are an expert in the very precise topic of the paper, it is generally hard to follow. And Science is a generalist journal: if I decide to venture myself in reading a paper in, let’s pick randomly, the Journal of Applied Physics, I will expect to have difficulties because the targeted audience in that case is a specialist audience. But if I am reading a generalist journal, I expect it to be more accessible.
In the meantime I must admit that I am pretty bluffed when a Psychology researcher gets a paper in this journal without using fancy imaging methods, which is the case here. Except for the use of iPhones to collect their data, this study is very much pen and paper Psychology. As for the length constraint, I must also say that Killingsworth and Gilbert dealt very well with it. They did a very good job in writing a very clear paper, and the questions it raised are actually not due to a lack of information.

So what about the study, its results and their interpretation? I think many psychologists recognize, more or less consciously, that customs and traditions often exist because of a psychological reality. For example, as the authors noticed here, many philosophies and religions recommend living in the hic et nunc [the here and now]. If there is some psychological common sense in those traditions, the recommendation would be here because living otherwise, i.e. mind-wandering in the past and/or the future, is not adaptive. So they decided to verify this and to look for a relation between happiness and mind-wandering.
For this they used a pretty cool method, very innovative and avoiding the usual problems that come when you ask people about their experience afterwards rather than during (e.g., report of a reconstructed experience rather than the real one). This method also gave them access to a very large sample of participants, widespread on the age range, living all over the world, and doing all kind of jobs. An iPhone application was sending participants questions, from time to time and randomly. Sometimes they were asked about their happiness first (on a 0 to 100 scale), and in any case they had to indicate what they were doing (among 22 pre-determined categories of activities) and if they were thinking to something else (with four options, no; something pleasant; something unpleasant; something neutral).
Using this technology they observed a very high rate of mind-wandering, higher than found previously. Using an iPhone application was definitely a nice idea: it is not only trendy but also efficient in collecting what seems to be better data. So, almost half of the time (46.9%), people were thinking to something else than their current activity, and no activity, except sex, was exempt of this (mind-wandering occurred at least in 30% of the samples for each other activity). This rate was only slightly influenced by the nature of the activity. Even more importantly the pleasantness of the mind-wandering had almost not to do with the nature of the activity, whereas the mind-wandering had an effect on the happiness. The more you mind-wander, the less happy you are, whatever activity you are supposed to do (i.e. even if you are doing something pretty boring, such as grooming). To be precise, it looks like unpleasant and neutral mind-wandering were driving the effect, as those two types had an effect on happiness but the pleasant mind-wandering had no relation to happiness. In other words, the effect is driven by the non pleasant mind-wandering, and instead of saying that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, I’d rather take note that a mind wandering to pleasant topics won’t be happier but won’t be more unhappy either.

A very nice thing in this paper is that they tried to determine the direction of the relation. The very first objection coming to mind before reading the paper is indeed that it is because one activity makes them unhappy that people mind-wander. But Killingsworth and Gilbert thought about this and tried to counter-argue with some time-lag analyses. According to them those analyses support that mind-wandering is the cause of people’s unhappiness. I admit it is convincing: I read the supporting material, and clearly there is no relation between previous unhappiness and mind-wandering whereas there is one between previous mind-wandering and unhappiness. But here is my problem: how can mind-wandering from two days away, or 10 maybe, influence my happiness right now? Do I even remember when I mind-wandered last week, and to what? On the other hand, if the time passed between each observation is really a counter-argument, surely there should be no relation at all, in any direction. Yet I still have difficulty to see some sense here. If at least the relation was between two samples of the same activity, you could imagine how the context would remind you mind-wandering on the previous time, or even how the delay accumulated in your activity is due to the previous episode of mind-wandering. But here I really can’t picture on what the relationship would rely.

Now, that said, I have a few quibbling points to defend and some more serious concerns. Choosing the iPhone as a recruitment tool, that’s quibbling matter, but you’ve got to ask the question. Are iPhone users like the general population? I am joking but I am only half-joking. iPhone users are surely very much similar to any other man/woman from a Western country when we consider them globally. However, when it comes to the use of their time, it might matter that they own an iPhone. Beyond the obvious trendy features, iPhones, as any smart phone, are also very useful to get yourself organized and efficient. Or very good at giving the illusion that they are. Therefore smart phone users, including iPhone users, might buy them because they are keener on using their time properly. And mind-wandering might make them feel like they are wasting this precious time. What I would like to know is how people using simpler phones would answer being asked the same questions. It would not be really that difficult to reach them in the same online manner: text messages could very well be sent instead of reminders from the application (although admittedly there would be some recruitment work to do that you don’t need to do with smartphones applications, which people choose to install). If differences show up between users of different types of phones, you might wonder if a negative attitude towards mind-wandering is actually not what is found in Killingsworth and Gilbert’s study. One might oppose to my point here that the population seems to cover every age and profession, and that different professions and age should be expected to have different attitudes towards mind-wandering and “wasting” time. But this diversity regards actually the overall population. We don’t know much about the population of interest here, those who had to rate their happiness. ¾ of them are living in the USA, the gender ratio is pretty balanced, but what is their age range, what are their jobs? They were picked randomly, so surely it shouldn’t matter but I am not sure why I am told this information about the overall sample but not about the sample of interest.
More importantly, I also would like to know their culture and their religion. I don’t actually really want to know about it, but I think that should be included as controls. Especially the religion: if you are following a tradition urging you to live in the moment, surely mind-wandering could make you more unhappy. And to accept that it is because of the cost of mind-wandering that a philosophy / culture banned it, you want to be able to exclude that one particular philosophy / culture made mind-wandering undesirable in the first place. In other words, you want to know if the chicken or the egg was here first. Philosophies, especially religious philosophies, have many reasons to find mind-wandering undesirable. For example it might be, or at least seem to be, easier to keep control on a mind that pays attention. But they might have controlled for it as well. That is typically the type of thing I assume researchers did but I cannot be sure because the format of publication imposed to cut on words.

My biggest concerns are also due to the format I believe. There are several distinctions that should be made to have more precise data. I am sure they thought about it, and a full discussion would let us see this. But it is short and I don’t get the satisfaction to read that the authors foresaw where I am going to argue. First distinction of interest: were participants thinking about something in the past or something in the future? If their mind-wandering was mostly based in the past, I can see how they felt they were losing their time and consequently how they felt unhappy. The examples of me mind-wandering were mostly proactive and oriented towards the future. I use my time on the bus to prepare my mind to my day of work or to what I am going to do once at home. I also use it towards building up my interest for this man, so that one day I might actually get proactive. If we had data about the past / future nature of the thoughts, we could perhaps observe a different pattern where people would be OK to mind-wander if it is future-oriented, because it is somehow constructive.
The second distinction I would like to see is within the activities. Some of them are too general in my opinion. Commuting especially is not the same if you are driving or in public transport. When you are driving, whatever the nature of your thoughts, they hinder your attention. If you are on the bus, as I said before for walking, there is not much you can do except thinking. Is being on the bus really an activity, I don’t think so. Thinking to something precise while being taken to work is an activity, and thinking to something else would be the mind-wandering bit. Here a methodological question comes up too. When asked if they are thinking to something else, are participants considering that primary mind-wandering is the something else? Or do they consider they mind-wander only if, while for example eating and already thinking to something, their thoughts jump to a secondary topic? It does not seem like participants were given a clear instruction of what is mind-wandering. Killingsworth and Gilbert define it as “stimulus-independent thought”, but what if to participants the stimulus is their thinking, not eating, not walking? So in those cases where the activity is not really the stimulus, what would make them unhappy is actually getting unfocused from their mind-wandering by unwanted thoughts.

Last point will bring us back to method. What was the instruction? Did participants think that they were supposed to report what they were doing at the moment they saw the notification or when they actually received it? I know it is a bit stretched to wonder if they did not get confused by the instructions. But the case of the sexual activity raises questions. Who can seriously believe they stopped to answer to the notification? From this activity only, we can assume that they decided to answer to the questions according to when the notification was sent, not treated. Or at least answered differently from one activity to another. If so, the whole point of using an iPhone application to have online, ecological data is partially missed.
And since we are talking about the sex category and about ecology, the social desirability is obviously a problem: people are not exactly ready to tell they are not enjoying their sex life, let alone that they mind-wander during sex. This is especially true nowadays, where sexual happiness is projected as key to global happiness by the media. But if you have a quick Google search, you’ll see that sometimes people mind-wander during sex. Oh yes, in this case, they are surely not happy to mind-wander, but it happens nevertheless. Not that I want to be over-precise in the technical details, but seriously, if you are a woman, that’s very easy to be here without being here.

I am pretty aware this post is far too long; I have written paper introductions shorter than this (I even suspect this post to be longer than the paper it is commenting). I promise to work towards conciseness; that will be the personal benefit of the blog writing, making my wordy Frenched English more, well, English (understand ” more straight to the point”). But let’s say this is my mind wandering on paper (sort of). And I am happy about it.
The real conclusion might be pretty boring. This paper was a good paper. Almost each of my points may exist only because the authors did not have the space to go further and highlight themselves the potential alternative explanations. Despite the limits in length they still managed to address the most important of those alternatives. I might have sounded angrier that I am actually. I am angry, no doubt about this, but not at the authors. I am angry at how general media gave echo to these results without questioning them. Mind-wandering doesn’t make you unhappy. Unpleasant and neutral mind-wandering does, pleasant mind-wandering has no effect, and we don’t know how the past / future orientation of your mind-wandering might influence these feelings. Let’s research be developed before reaching general conclusions please. We are not even sure those feelings are not due to having an iPhone that asks you what you are doing when you have sex….

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439