Thursday, January 06, 2011

New study: a wandering mind creates unhappiness

A serene Buddha in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

My long-time friend Therese Fitzgerald is an ordained Zen priest who works as a spiritual mentor and meditation teacher. She's also director of Dharma Friends; her husband Arnold Kotler is publisher of Koa Books. Through my friendship with Therese and other Zen friends, I've learned the value of staying in the present moment. Sitting zazen, or counting breaths in meditation, is an exercise in keeping one's attention in the moment. Zen author Natalie Goldberg writes about our "monkey mind" that wanders and must be pulled continuously back to the present to find serenity.

Buddha in Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

12-step programs too

Staying in the present is a major tenet in 12-step programs too, with slogans like "Keep your head where your feet are." Good advice, but it doesn't come naturally to the human mind, at least not my mind.

New study confirms it, except for sex

Anyway I was intrigued to see this topic explored in a recently published scientific study. The study was conducted by 2 researchers at Harvard who sampled the mood of 2250 volunteers over several days by contacting them at random times via their iPhones. They found that people's minds wander at least 30% of the time during all activities except sex.

The researchers also found that the volunteers' moods were considerably worse when their minds were wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics, rather than focusing on the activity at hand.

This part surprised me

I was surprised that the researchers found that subjects' minds wandered more often to pleasant than to unpleasant topics. (More about that below.)

But even ruminating on pleasant topics did not improve the volunteers' moods over paying attention to their current actions. In other words, a wandering mind does not improve our mood and often makes it worse.

Other studies show that we remember negative events more readily

Everything in this study makes intuitive sense to me except one thing: when volunteers' minds were wandering, they usually reported pleasant thoughts. I find it hard to believe that's an accurate portrayal of the human mind in general. Humans are programmed evolutionarily to problem-solve. Research by neurologists has shown that negative experiences (anger, fear, pain, etc.) create more prominent memories than pleasant or neutral experiences, because recalling negative experiences has more survival value. It seems to follow that if we're lost in reveries, the reveries are likely to be related to problems and problem-solving.
A zafu to sit on during Zen meditation.

Strategies for staying in the present

But still, even if that part of the experiment is flawed, the upshot is the same. A wandering mind does not contribute to serenity and is likely to undermine our moods.  So.  I feel renewed interest in trying to keep my own "monkey-mind" from wandering. Meditation helps; so does repeating a simple phrase (12-steppers often use the Serenity Prayer or the Lord's Prayer).  Also, just paying attention to my sensations of touch and hearing, etc., while I perform tasks such as washing the dishes can help me stay in the present.

Keywords:  Zen Buddhism wandering mind staying in the present serenity Therese Fitzgerald Dharma Friends Koa Books meditation 12-step programs Matthew Killingsworth Daniel Gilbert Harvard

1 comment:

Suzan said...

Interesting dissection.

As a meditator since the mid-70's, I have to add that I only have had my "monkey mind" jump to positive experiences, etc.

So I question the data.

But there will be more.