Wandering mind syndrome: why it’s a problem and what to do about it

A couple of pretty recent studies concluded that when our minds wander, our unhappiness increases.  This finding is troubling because it is the nature of the human mind to wander; that is, to think about something other than what is happening in the present moment.  How often do you catch yourself ruminating about the past or worrying about the future?  If you start to pay attention, you might be surprised by how often your mind wanders.

One of these studies was conducted by a couple of Harvard researchers (click here to read more about the study) who concluded “[t]he ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”  It had 2250 subjects and found that the subjects were engaging in mind wandering almost 47% of the time.  What’s more, this directly resulted in feelings of unhappiness.

Another study built off the first and was published in 2014 (see the article in Science magazine here).  In this study psychologists conducted experiments on subjects who were basically forced to be alone with themselves for some period of time (i.e., buh-bye iPhones and the like).  In one experiment, subjects were actually given access to a 9 volt battery capable of giving an unpleasant shock.  Much to the surprise of the scientists, 12 out of 18 of the male subjects (and 6 out of 24 females) actually chose to shock themselves repeatedly!  Apparently that was a more palatable alternative than just sitting by themselves for 15 minutes.  Doesn’t this seem insane?

Maybe not if you’ve ever tried to meditate and immediately got flooded with unpleasant thoughts so promptly threw down the meditation cushion and ran for the nearest phone or tv (been there).

But hard as it may be to sit quietly with ourselves and our thoughts, our failure to do so takes a big hit on our happiness.  So say the Harvard duo referenced above: “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

So what’s a person to do?  TGFY (thank god for yoga).  On our mats, we have the opportunity to really be in the present moment.  Some aspects of the asana practice demand it (imagine fantasizing about your next vacation in a challenging balancing pose or inversion, but don’t actually try this at home).  Others simply provide the space for us to get really present with ourselves.  Take the awareness of the breath, for example.  It’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to stay rooted in the present moment.  If we can practice this on our mats, we can take it off our mats as well.  And if we do, the emotional benefits will abound.


(Picture of my daughter taken many years ago; makes a yogi mama proud)