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"Blessed are the pure in heart," Jesus is said to have told the crowds at the Sea of Galilee. Some modern translators restate this beatitude as "Blessed is the one-track mind." Sometimes a one-track mind is just what you need to find happiness in life.

Karl was a brilliant but unhappy man.

A multi-millionaire who retired from a successful Internet business at the age of 37, Karl nonetheless had a teenage son who didn't respect him and a wife who was ready to divorce him. He couldn't get around to calling back his friends for social engagements, he neglected his hobbies, and most of his post-retirement investments had proven unsuccessful.

Eventually Karl, who didn't spend his millions on household staff, couldn't even find the motivation to pick up his clothes from the bedroom floor and would leave lunch simmering unattended for hours on the stove, until the smoke detector went off. 

Ironically, Karl would later tell his therapist that he had a very active life. But his wife would interject that he had "the attention span of a flea."

The Paradox of Prosperity

Since the 1950's, North Americans, and more recently, people in Europe and even in the formerly developing world, have seen an incredible increase in material wealth. Conveniences that for centuries were not available to kings and queens are commonplace. Incomes are 10 to 50 times higher, in real terms, than they were in 1900.  People live longer than at any other time in recorded history, and diseases that once were always fatal can now be treated with a shot or a pill or painless surgical procedure.

People in almost all of the world have more personal freedom than ever before, too, but the net result of all this change has not been an increase in happiness. In fact, griping about the vicissitudes of life on the Internet is almost as common as kitty videos. In 2008, a Harvard doctoral student in psychology named Matt Killingsworth set out to find the reasons why.

Does a Wandering Mind Make People Unhappy?

Killingsworth came up with a novel approach to researching the determinants of happiness. Using an iPhone app, he recruited 15,000 people aged 18 to their late 80's from all walks of life in over 80 countries, in 86 occupational categories, married and single, high-income, low-income, and in between, to report their degrees of happiness in real time.

Making the app available for free download, Killingsworth asked participants to complete a short survey and then to choose the number of times per day the app would ask them to rate their happiness on their phones. The app sent signals at random times of day asking participants three questions.

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?
  • What are you doing right now? Participants could choose among 22 different options options including working, commuting, interacting with children, eating, talking, and having sex, among many others.
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you are doing right now. People could answer no, they were focused on the activity at hand, or yes, they were thinking about something else, and it made them feel good or bad or their feelings were neutral.
Killingsworth reasoned that if he could track how happiness correlated with activities and mindfulness (whether participants had their minds on the activities at hand, or were allowing their minds to wander), then it might be able to understand better what it is that really makes people happy.

The Harvard student's initial hypothesis that people's minds wander a lot of the time turned out to be true. Matt Killingworth found a clear trend in 650,000 real-time, in some cases, minute-to-minute reports of happiness from the 15,000 people in the study:

  • People reported an average happiness of 6.4 when they were focused on present activities, and 5.2 when their minds were wandering.
  • People were less happy when their minds were wandering even when the activity at hand was unpleasant, such as driving in rush hour traffic while late to work.

People were substantially happier, for instance, when they were focused only on their commute, rather than when their mind was wandering off to something else.

  • Even when people allowed their minds to wander to think about something pleasant, they were still less happy when their minds were focused on the activity at hand.
People's minds wander during all kinds of activities, although less often during sex. Whether Killingsworth made an adjustment for answering the iPhone app during coitus or not is not stated in the study.

So what do these findings really tell us about how to be happy?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. 2010 Nov 12. 330(6006):932. doi: 10.1126/science.1192439.
  • Wortham, J. If You're Happy and You Know It, Tell Your Phone. New York Times, 29 July 2009.