Where is My Mind?

Live in the moment. We've all heard that advice in one form or another. Don't dwell on the past. Don't live in the future. Don't let your mind wander so much. Be present. If we could just live in the moment, we would be happier. Of course that's easier said than done. Humans have evolved to let their minds wander; even as we go on about our day, we rehash the past and make contingency plans for the future. Surely this is a great evolutionary advantage that allows us to continuously improve and to be better prepared for future emergencies, but as a 2010 Harvard study indicates, it comes with a significant emotional cost. Unfortunately, those of us that are experiencing anxiety are especially "evolved" and bear that emotional cost more than most, but mindfulness can even the playing field.

The Harvard research group conducted large-scale "experience sampling" to gauge what people were doing, what they were thinking about, and how they were feeling, repeatedly throughout their day. Earlier experience sampling studies have often been limited by the number of participants and how to interrupt people randomly in their everyday life to gauge their thoughts and feelings. The Harvard researchers developed a simple iPhone app to interrupt thousands of participants repeatedly throughout their waking hours. They were asked "How are you feeling right now?" to grade their happiness on a scale of 1-100. They were then asked "What are you doing right now?" and were asked to select one of 22 broad categories of activities. Finally participants were asked "Are you thinking about something other than what you're doing?" to which they could respond with one of four answers: no, yes (something positive), yes (something neutral), or yes (something negative).

A total of a quarter of a million experience samples from 5,000 individuals from all age groups and walks of life revealed three major findings about the emotional cost of our mind-wandering habit. The first finding was that human minds wander a lot! Participants reported thinking about something other than what they were doing nearly 50% of the time. That's a whole lot of not living in the moment! In fact, of the 22 activity types, participants reported mind-wandering at least 30% of the time in all but one activity. Can you guess which one... sex. That's one way to be mindful I guess!

The second finding confirms the age-old advice that living in the moment makes us happier. Participants reported lower happiness scores while their minds were wandering. Even while day dreaming about positive things, participants were no more happy than if they were focused on the activity at hand. In both cases, they reported a happiness rating of about 70%. In contrast, neutral and negative mind-wandering was associated with happiness scores of about 62 and 43%. Looks like those wise men and women of old were onto something.

The third and final finding of the Harvard study is that our thoughts are a much stronger indicator than our actions of our happiness level. Positive vs. negative mind wandering predicted happiness levels 2 to 3 times better than positive activities (e.g. relaxing, listening to music) vs. negative activities (e.g. commuting, working). This finding rings true to anyone who has ever had a terrible, no good, very bad day, and their friends tried to take them out to cheer them up. Throughout most of the evening, we can't stop thinking about our awful day and we make terrible company even though we're out shopping, talking, or relaxing - three "positive" activities.

As these Harvard researchers concluded, human minds wander a lot, and all that mind-wandering detracts from the experience of what we are actually doing. No doubt, being able to think about other things than the task at hand has great evolutionary advantages, but it sure does have an emotional cost, especially if we get caught in the habit of rehashing the past and worrying about the future. That type of anxious mind-wandering can be very cyclical and very sticky.

However, a new study out of the University of Waterloo (Canada) adds to the growing body of evidence highlighting how helpful mindfulness exercises can be in reducing that anxious mind-wandering. These researchers asked 82 college students with anxiety to perform a simple computer task while being interrupted with experience sampling questions similar to the 2010 Harvard study. Before starting the exercise, half of the students, the control group, listened to an audio recording from Tolkien's "The Hobbit." The other half, the test group, participated in a short mindfulness exercise. During the computer exercise, the participants were randomly and repeatedly asked to type out their thoughts, to rate how motivated they were to think about the thought or to avoid it, and also how motivated they were to do well on the task. It turns out that while the mindfulness group reported just as much mind-wandering as the control group, they were more focused and motivated on the task at hand.

This University of Waterloo study, and others like it, highlight that preventing our minds from wandering is a lot like herding cats. Don't think about pink elephants.... See what I mean? However, mindfulness training strengthens our mind just like going to the gym strengthens our muscles, allowing us to slide back to the present moment or present task easier and faster than we would otherwise. Mindfulness makes that mind-wandering cycle a bit less sticky, which can make all the difference to the anxious mind.

I avoided meditation for years, in part because I really didn't understand what it was all about, but I wish I hadn't. Even a little bit helps. I try to do 10 minutes a day, and in addition, I try to conduct my own experience sampling throughout the day, by gently asking myself 1) Where my mind? and 2) Is that where I want my mind to be? Because anxiety is due to the mindless habitual re-running of anxious and fearful thoughts, being a bit more deliberate with our intention can be very helpful here so that we're in the driver seat, rather than getting unknowingly dragged around by our thinking. We can't help what thoughts come to mind, our brains are thinking machines, but there is often more space than we're aware of for a choice as to whether or not we want to follow that thought.