iPhone Users Report That Daydreams Make Them Sad

By Andrew Moseman | November 11, 2010 5:26 pm

iPhoneHandIn many high-tech parts of the world, iPhones are what people turn to when their minds wander from what they were supposed to be doing. For a study in this week’s Science, however, researchers turned the tables on these people, using the iPhone as a tool to study the wandering mind. Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that the minds wanders a lot (no surprise there), but also that daydreaming could make people unhappier.

Their app, called Track Your Happiness, takes advantage of the iPhone’s unparalleled ability to butt into its owner’s life.

iPhone users, aged 18 to 88, signed up for a Web application that contacted study them at random times during their days to ask a simple set of questions: How happy were they at the moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking about something other than what the task at hand, and if so, were they thinking of something pleasant, neutral, or negative? [Boston Globe]

The stats: “We analyzed samples from 2250 adults (58.8% male, 73.9% residing in the United States, mean age of 34 years),” the scientists write. Altogether, 46.9 percent of the time the responders said their minds were wandering when the iPhone rang to query their thoughts. The only activity during which people reported daydreaming less than 30 percent of the time was having sex. (Though, this means respondents either stopped having sex long enough to answer the survey—in which case DISCOVER applauds their dedication to science, but questions their judgment—or they heard the phone buzz and thought, “That must be the survey, I should answer it afterward”—in which case they perhaps were lying about not being distracted.)

But Killingsworth and Gilbert’s main finding is that all this mind wandering does generally make people unhappier, at least according to the self-reported survey. Respondents who reported that their thoughts had drifted from the task at hand were more likely to declare themselves unhappy.

The link may be due to an asymmetry in how daydreams affect mood. Killingsworth and Gilbert found that daydreams about pleasant things were linked to improvements in mood, but only slight improvements. Thinking about neutral topics while mind-wandering was linked to a similarly modest drop in happiness, but daydreams about unpleasant topics coincided with a 20-point drop on the 100-point scale that app users used to rate their mood. [New Scientist]

Eric Klinger, a daydream researcher at the University of Minnesota, Morris, told the Boston Globe that this study’s data backs up what scientists have found about the frequency of mind-wandering in the past. However, he says, isn’t it possible that getting interrupted by your iPhone asking you how you’re feeling could change how you’re feeling?

He noted that it would be interesting to know whether the interrupted activity, itself, was experienced as pleasant or not, to better understand whether the nature of the activity influenced a person’s happiness. “Daydreaming and mind-wandering serve a number of crucial roles,” Klinger said. “They are nature’s way of keeping us organized.” [Boston Globe]

On behalf of lifelong daydreamers everywhere, I appreciate this defense of letting one’s mind drift away, even if it doesn’t always lead to happiness.

Innovative ideas and insights often arise through free association. And being able to plan and strategize effectively require a focus on the future, not the now. “There’s no doubt that this capacity is beneficial in a variety of ways and it’s certainly very possible that a lot of creative thinking involves mind wandering,” says Killingsworth. [TIME]

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Image: flickr / William Hook

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology
  • OMG

    OMG, do you have nothing better to do? Isn’t this a science magazine…

  • Laura

    Or maybe they’re already sad and that’s why they’re daydreaming?? Don’t people tend to focus more on tasks they enjoy?

  • YouRang

    AMEN Laura. You would hope that Discover didn’t fall prey to the mainstream press’s problem of confusing the cart and the horse. THey researchers report that supplements have no benefit because the testers set up the test to fail by using biased specimen sets. etc.

  • FunnyMemory

    This is not relevant to the topic but it reminded me of something.

    Firstly, I am an avid fan/player of the popular MMO World of Warcraft and have been since Jan 2005. My crew and I at the time [myself and 39 other players] were in the middle of fighting the avatar of a very powerful and ancient god when something went horribly wrong: a group of our “Healers” died and that meant that everyone else would soon follow! But for the brave move of one of our valiant Paladins who cast a ‘Divine Shield’ on someone to spare us all the trouble of a ‘corpse run’ back into the bowels of the dungeon.

    Turns out, that very paladin was the cause of the “wipe” [the term coined to describe the event of all players in a group or raid dying to a monster(s)] as his girlfriend had seduced him mid-fight, but to make up for it and to everyones great amusement, he interupted his intercourse to save the raid he unwittingly killed! I think we all nearly herniated we were laughing so hard at the announcement :)

  • http://HappinessHabit.com MicheleMoore-Happy1

    Many thanks for your skeptical analysis of this study!

    It’s important to emphasize that how we feel about what we are doing affects our happiness and our levels of attention.

    When we are enjoying what we are doing we pay attention to it.

    When we don’t particularly enjoy what we are doing our mind wanders.

    Our happiness research showed: Our Focus of Attention Determines Our Feelings.

    When we focus our time and attention on things we like and find pleasurable we feel energized, enthusiastic and excited.

    When we focus on things we think are bad we feel sad, angry, anxious or dissatisfied.

    For more see: http://HappinessHabit.com and http://Creating-Happiness.com

    MicheleMoore- Happy1 ~ HappinessHabit.com

  • Buddah :D

    “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” –Buddha

    This is true because dreaming of the future is basically wishing for something to happen and not contemplating it. Day dreaming just brings desire which causes the person to contrast it to there current situation, Which brings suffering!

    Buddha found this out without a silly contraption!

  • scott

    WHAT WHAT WHAT ABOUT>>>>What about the current state of the world that dwells on people minds…fear of job loss, global pollution, their credit score, their debt, their underwater mortgage, all the bad TV news, childhood obesity, walking along a sidewalk or driving along a road side filled with trash….

    How much TV do they watch that fills the brain with mindless garbage, anxiety, fabricated situations, etc. How is their diet? Do they eat a lot of junk and processed foods that affect mood? Who do they keep as friends? Frenemies? People who might purposely or subconsciously put them down and or hold them back? Are they well rested or very tired? Do they spend time on FB seeing if someone they have not seen in 20 years has checked into Starbucks in Kansas City for a coffee?

    Were people any happier during the middle ages…or at any point in human history? Were people sitting under candle light in an 1879 house at 9pm (doing whatever), or working in some terrible factory really that different in what they dreamed and thought about than now, even with all our stimulaiton? Who knows, I sure don’t….I think eating well, watching less news/TV, being selective in your company is the best thing one can do…the only study I have done is on myself..


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