"A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind"

Last year, in an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show, the comedian Louis C.K. riffed on smartphones and the burden of human consciousness:

"That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person...Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone. It's down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'Oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...

That's why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they're killing, everybody's murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a second because it's so hard."

The punchline stings because it’s mostly true. People really hate just sitting there. We need distractions to distract us from ourselves. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new paper published in Science by the psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues. The study consists of 11 distinct experiments, all of which revolved around the same theme: forcing subjects to be alone with themselves for up to 15 minutes. Not alone with a phone. Alone with themselves.

The point of these experiments was to study the experience of mind-wandering, which is what we do when we have nothing to do at all. When the subjects were surveyed after their session of enforced boredom – they were shorn of all gadgets, reading materials and writing implements - they reported feelings of intense unpleasantness. One of Wilson’s experimental conditions consisted of giving subjects access to a nine-volt battery capable of administering an unpleasant shock. To Wilson’s surprise, 12 out of 18 male subjects (and 6 out of 24 female subjects) chose to shock themselves repeatedly. “What is striking,” Wilson et. al write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electrical shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid…Most people seem to prefer doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

These lab results build on a 2010 experience-sampling study by Mathew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert that contacted 2250 adults at random intervals via their iPhones. The subjects were asked about their current level of happiness, their current activity and whether or not they were thinking about their current activity. On average, subjects reported that their minds were wandering – thinking about something besides what they were doing – in 46.9 percent of the samples. (Sex was the only activity during which people did not report high levels of mind-wandering.) Here’s where things get disturbing: all this mind-wandering made people unhappy, even when they were daydreaming about happy things. “In conclusion,” write Killingsworth and Gilbert, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Although we typically use mind-wandering to reflect on the past and plan for the future, these useful thoughts deny us our best shot at happiness, which is losing ourselves in the present moment. As Killingsworth and Gilbert put it: “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” 

Given these dismal results, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the digital world, with its constant froth of new information. To carry a smartphone is to never be alone; a swipe of the fingers turns on a screen that keeps us mindlessly entertained, the brain lost in the glowing screen. It’s important to note, however, that Wilson et. al. didn’t find any correlation between time spent on smartphones and the ability to enjoy mind-wandering. Contrary to what Louis C.K. argued, there’s little to reason to think that our gadgets are the cause of our inability to be alone. They distract us from ourselves, but we’ve always sought distractions, whether it’s television, novels or a comic on a stage. We seek these distractions because, as Wilson et. al. write, "it is hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there." And so our daydreams often end up in dark places, as we ruminate on our errors and regrets. (It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that there's a consistent relationship between mind-wandering and dysphoria.) Here's Louis C.K. once again:

"The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food...You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that's why I don't want to get a phone for my kids.”

One last point. It's interesting to think of this new research in light of religious traditions that emphasize both the struggle of existence and the importance of living in the moment. According to the Buddha, the first noble truth of the world is dukkha, which roughly translates as “suffering.” This pain can't be escaped - everyone dies - but it can be assuaged, at least if we learn to think properly. (The Buddhist term for such thinking, sati, is often translated as mindfulness, or "attentiveness to the present.") Instead of letting the mind disengage, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of using meditative practice to stay tethered to this here now. Because once you admit the big picture sadness, once you accept the inevitability of sorrow and despair, then a wandering mind keeps wandering back to that brutal truth. The only escape is embrace what's actually happening, even if it means sitting in a bare room, noticing the waves of boredom and sadness that wash over the mind. "Let the sadness hit you like a truck," Louis C.K. says, sounding a little bit like a foul-mouthed Buddha. "You're lucky to live sad moments."