Lifestyle and exercise

Living for the moment

“Living in the moment really does make people happier,” reported The Guardian . The newspaper said, “people are distracted from the task at hand nearly half of the time and this daydreaming consistently makes them less happy”.

Researchers surveyed people using an iPhone application, asking about their mood, current activity and whether they were focused on the task at hand. People whose mind was wandering to an unpleasant or neutral topic reported that they were less happy than people who were focused on what they were doing.

This is innovative research, and the application of smartphones in this way is likely to be employed in future studies. However, the method by which the participants were recruited meant that they were likely to know the rationale behind the study, which may have affected their responses. The research was also limited to iPhone users, and so may not be representative of the population as a whole.

The reasearch is continuing should anyone wish to take part in the study. People may want to take it in the good-natured spirit in which it is intended, rather than being genuinely concerned about how their mind wandering affects their happiness.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Harvard University. The funding source for this research was not stated. The study was published in the (peer-reviewed) journal Science .

The research was covered accurately by the Daily Mail and The Guardian . However, both newspapers could have paid more attention to how the participants were recruited to the study and the bias that may have arisen from this.

What kind of research was this?

The researchers say that humans are the only animal to spend a lot of time 'thinking about what’s not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or may not happen at all'. They say that 'many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering'. In this cross-sectional study, they aimed to investigate whether people who let their mind wander were less happy than those who 'lived in the moment'.

To answer this question, the researchers opted to carry out what they called ‘experience sampling’, which involves contacting people as they engage in everyday activities and asking about their thoughts, feelings and actions at that moment. They consider this to be the most reliable method for investigating real-world emotion, and a better method than asking how people felt about an event in the past which they may not be able to recall accurately. However, this sort of sampling can be unfeasible, especially if many people need to be surveyed.

The researchers therefore created an application for the iPhone that contacted participants at random times throughout the day to ask about their mood and activities. This allowed them to collect data from a large sample of people.

What did the research involve?

The participants volunteered online by signing up at the researcher’s website, which had received national press coverage. A total of 2,250 adults signed up, 59% of whom were men and 74% were living in the US. All participants were over 18 with an average age of 34.

The participants were asked the times at which they woke up and went to sleep, and how many times they would be willing to receive a sample request (between one and three times a day). A computer program generated random times for the participants to be contacted each day, and given a selection from a variety of mood and activity assessment questions.

For example, participants were asked, ‘How are you feeling right now?’, to which they answered by giving a rating on a sliding scale from very bad (0) to very good (100). The participants were also asked, ‘What are you doing right now?’ and chose from a list of 22 activities, such as working, watching TV or talking.

They were also asked a mind-wandering question, ‘Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?’. Possible answers were: No; Yes, something pleasant; Yes, something neutral or Yes, something unpleasant. Out of an average of 50 requests, the participants answered 83%.

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that the participant’s minds wandered frequently, and reported that their mind was wandering 47% of the time they were contacted. When the 22 activities were analysed separately there was a range in the proportion of participants that reported their mind wandering across the activities. However, for the majority of the activities at least 30% of the participants were not focused on the task. The only activity in which over 70% of the participants were entirely focused when contacted was making love.

The researchers used a statistical technique called multilevel regression to see whether there was an association between mind wandering and happiness. They found that when people said that their mind was wandering, they also said that they were less happy. People’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (43% of samples) than unpleasant (27%) or neutral topics (31%).

The researchers found that when people were thinking about pleasant topics they were no happier than if they were concentrating on the activity in hand.  However, if their mind had strayed to neutral or negative thoughts, they reported that they were less happy than people whose mind had not wandered.

There was variation in how happy each different activity made each participant and also variation in how happy an activity made one participant compared to another participant. However, if a participant's mind was wandering, this had a more variable influence on their overall happiness compared to the activity they were doing.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude, 'a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind'.

They say that there are evolutionary advantages to mind wandering, such as allowing people to learn, reason and plan, but that the 'ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost'.


This research developed a method for ‘real-time sampling’ a large number of people’s moods using smart phone technology. This new approach may be of great interest to other researchers and could prove to be a valuable technique for answering other questions.

This study may have found an association between reported happiness ‘in the moment’ and mind-wandering, but it does not show that people who spend most of their time daydreaming are less happy overall than people who spend more time focussed on what they’re doing.

The real-time sampling approach was well thought out but there are several limitations to this research that may affect how well it applies to the population as a whole. Firstly, the participants were all recruited through the research group’s webpage, and this may have biased the type of person who participated. For example, people who had an interest in the philosophy of living in the moment may have been more likely to participate.

The study also received national press coverage in the US, though it is not clear whether this coverage would have revealed what the study was about. If participants know what the researchers are interested in, this can affect how they respond.

Lastly, to take part, participants had to possess an Iphone, and people who own these devices may differ in personality and socioeconomic background from the general population. One example of this is that the average age of the participants was 34, which is lower than if the sample had been representative of the age range of the general population.

The reasearch is continuing should anyone wish to take part in the study. People may want to take the it in the good-natured spirit in which it is intended, rather than being genuinely concerned about how their mind wandering affects their happiness.

NHS Attribution