This will likely come as no surprise to you, but our minds are all over the place, all the time. It’s something that science has long been aware of and even has a name for: mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is the act of shifting our thinking from whatever is happening now, to certain other self-generated thoughts, ideas, and feelings. All of a sudden we’re taking a trip down memory lane, or wondering how we’ll do in that meeting tomorrow, or what we’ll make for dinner tonight.
In 2010 the research team of Killingsworth and Gilbert looked into this further, and it turns out that our minds wander an incredible 46.9% of the time. This means that almost half of the time we are not focusing on the task at hand, or even mentally present. We are just out there somewhere, wandering.
Why do we do this?
Our brains are a fascinating network of different regions with specific focuses. For example we have a section of the brain that is tasked with facial recognition, and another for language, one for memories, etc. These parts kick in as required when we are doing a set of tasks. But there is also a pre-set “default network” that kicks in when we’re not doing anything else. Interestingly, research also shows that this default network is actually very efficient to run, which may be why we default to it. It’s like our very own screensaver.
Neuroscientists started noticing this default network when studying other things… which parts of the brain light up during facial recognition, language recognition, etc. They noticed that when test subjects were not given anything to think about, certain default regions always lit up. So we never go totally “dark”. Our brains are never 100% quiet, just in power-saver mode. About half the time.
These regions that light up when we’re mind-wandering have been dubbed “task-unresponsive” regions… which is such a funny sciency name, but there it is. The default network is a set of regions that are responsive when you aren’t doing a task.
Our default network has some incredible features, namely that it is a fast, efficient setup. Within a fraction of a second after completing a task, we’re already off mind-wandering, thinking of other things. Our screensaver comes on a mere nanosecond after we remove our hand from the mouse. We’re thinking about the past, the future, our next meal, about other people, and every time we slip into this place, it’s the same regions of our brain that light up. Our default network is where we go when we’re not in the here and now.
We’re one of the only species (that we know of) that can wander into the past and the future like we do. There’s no argument that it’s pretty amazing that we can mind-wander, but is it good?
Does mind-wandering make us feel good?
Killingsworth and Gilbert continued their research by looking at people’s levels of happiness when they were doing tasks and not doing tasks. This simple study involved quick check-ins at various intervals throughout the day. They asked questions like “What are you doing right now?”, “Are you thinking about the task at hand?”, and “Are you feeling happy?” The intent of the questions was to determine people’s level of engagement with their tasks. They found that around 30% of the time, in almost all the activities they are doing, people are mind-wandering.
What’s more, their research ultimately found that mind-wandering can have a negative impact on a person’s overall happiness. Even when you wander to a pleasant thing like an upcoming holiday or the new friend you made, this kind of wandering merely keeps you steady. Otherwise even neutral mind-wandering, like what to make for dinner, tends toward making us more unhappy.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” – Dan Gilbert, researcher
Is there any way to shut this thing off?
What can we do to stop our minds from wandering? If our brain’s default mode is wandering, how do we circumvent that? Turns out meditation holds a lot of answers here. Meditation, an ancient practice of turning attention away from distracting thoughts toward a single point of focus. It is life-changing, and that’s no hyperbole.
Can meditation make us happier? Hedy Kober is a Yale professor who wanted to know if the act of meditating can stop mind-wandering. For her study she used a group of expert meditators with 10,000+ hours of meditation under their belts, and another group of controls… non-meditators. The study was fairly simple: Put everyone in a brain scanner and do three meditations with them. A loving-kindness meditation, a breath meditation, and a “choiceless awareness” meditation in which participants simply note the thoughts that come and go, with no judgment.
What happened to default network activation in each of these groups? The meditators, it turns out, use their default networks a whole lot less during meditation… they can actually override their default network and hold their focus on the present.
The research showed something else that was really cool: The brains of regular meditators seem more connected, the regions seem to communicate. The data showed other regions purposely shutting down the default network in order to re-route the attention to them.
As if all of that isn’t exciting and interesting enough, Professor Kober’s research confirmed that this connection, this ability to re-route focus, is happening all the time in people who regularly meditate. With a simple, easy meditation practice of a few minutes daily, we are literally re-wiring our default pattern to be more focused on the here and now.
Can meditation actually lead to a happier you?
You’re learning how to meditate. It’s an uphill battle, but you’re doing it because you’ve heard it’s worth it. Will you eventually report higher happiness? Research says yes. In fact in just 8 weeks, you’re already getting a big boost. With a regular daily practice, new happiness is almost guaranteed to be found. In a 2008 study by Fredrickson et al, non-meditators reported the same level of happiness in week 1 as in week 8, while new meditators reported more and more happiness with each week that went by.
Research has also confirmed that meditation builds brain tissue, just like lifting weights builds muscle. In 2001, Holzel et al studied the gray matter of people who meditated for 30 minutes across an 8 week period. Across the board, meditators experienced a great boost in actual physical brain matter. You’re literally changing and strengthening your brain with meditation! Expect cognitive and physical performance boosts too.
Meditation can build social connections too
Loving-kindness meditation increases feelings of social closeness among strangers. In this experiment, researchers showed their subjects photos of strangers. They asked questions like “How close do you think you’d like to be to this person?” “Would you want to be this person’s friend?” Subjects then did a loving-kindness meditation for one of the strangers they weren’t fond of, and something incredible happened: The subjects rated their feelings of closeness toward that stranger quite a bit higher than before the meditation. Turns out the meditation increased warm fuzzies for everyone too, not just the person they did the meditation for.
What about when subjects already liked the target stranger? There was a huge boost in how they perceive the person after the meditation. This implies that we’ll just keep feeling more and more love for our fellow man, as we practice more and more. We’ll even end up feeling kindness for the ones we don’t really like. All we have to do is do it.
Getting started is easy
Finding the quiet confidence needed to focus in any direction you choose, is the right kind of mind control! Becoming familiar with the default network you’re currently operating on, and then specifically tailoring it to vibe at the frequency you desire, is a pretty cool trick.
There are so many wonderful online resources for meditation. A quick Google search should give you everything you need to get going. Whether you choose a loving-kindness meditation, breathwork, guided visualization, or any other, the method seems to be of little importance.
It’s the act of keeping control of your mind, gently bringing your focus back to the present, that’s the ultimate key to promoting happiness.
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