This study is not quite new anymore (well, from 2010), but it is so instructive that when looking at it again today I thought it would be good to share this.
Apologies if you know this one inside out already.
One of the strengths of our mind is that we are able to plan and to predict what is going to happen in the future. Based on our prior experience we can mentally simulate how the future may look like – undoubtedly a most useful feat. Researchers have recently investigated possible downsides of this ability. Using smartphone technology they were able to take their research outside the laboratory and assess in a relatively unobtrusive fashion what their participants think, feel and experience in daily live – in all kinds of situations. They employed a method called experience sampling or ecological momentary assessment, where participants who downloaded the smartphone application were prompted at unpredictable times during waking hours to answer a few questions about their thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their daily activities. Based on a large database of experience samples that were collected the researchers were able to conclude that our minds wander quite frequently, in almost 50% of the samples. Also, more complex analysis revealed that the participants were less happy in situations when their mind was wandering and most likely even that mind wandering was the cause not the consequence of unhappiness. Furthermore, the state of mind, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than the activity they were engaged in.
Thus, the authors of the study conclude: “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Fortunately, I would say, these are not mandatory processes. Meditation practice can help us gaining the inner freedom to decide if and when we want to think about what is not happening and otherwise to relax the mind joyfully in the present moment of experience.