Lack of focus can make you unhappy
November 11th, 2010
05:20 PM ET

Lack of focus can make you unhappy

In a typical day your mind is probably all over the place, worrying about your next appointment or what's for dinner. That's making you unhappy, according to a new study.

Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that about 47 percent of people's waking hours are spent doing anything except being in the moment and focusing on the current activity.

Having a wandering mind is an achievement in the animal kingdom, but it comes at an emotional cost, the authors write.

"It is likely the same capacity that allows humans to learn from the past, plan for the future, and imagine things that might never occur, which are clearly afford very important benefits," Killingsworth said in an e-mail. "But like people's desire for food, it may be a tendency that at some level is beneficial but can cause problems (e.g. obesity with respect to desire for food, and unnecessary worry or distraction with respect to mind-wandering)."

People participated in the study, published in the journal Science, through an iPhone app that you can get at trackyourhappiness.org. More than 2,200 users ages 18 to 88 were contacted at random intervals. They answered questions about their present happiness, their current activity, and what they were thinking about.

Out of the 22 activities that participants reported doing, including watching TV and shopping, making love had the least mind-wandering associated with it. In all other activities, participants said their minds wandered more than 30 percent of the time.

What brings people the most happiness according to this study? Making love, exercising, engaging in conversation. The least: Resting, working, using a home computer.

It appears that only a small part of happiness - 4.6 percent - has to do with the actual activity you're doing, while mind-wandering claims 10.8 percent, the study authors wrote.

Perhaps traditions that emphasize living in the present moment have something to them, the authors suggest. In fact, next week CNNHealth.com will explore  "mindfulness," a Buddhist concept that emphasizes awareness of the here and now, and how Western psychologists are using it in treatment.

The website trackyourhappiness.org is still active and growing, and Killingsworth encourages anyone with an iPhone to participate.

"Users can view their results and see the predictors of their happiness. More generally we hope our insights from the project can help improve people's well-being," he said.

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. what

    i couldn't concentrate enough to read it.......

    November 11, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Els

    I just want to know how many people actually answered the surveyor's questions while making love.... In other words, how do they know that people's minds were not wandering?

    November 11, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fish

      I know if my partner responded to an iphone 'app' while making love, he'd be pretty unhappy with the results....

      November 12, 2010 at 07:50 | Report abuse |
  3. Frank Kent

    ByiPhone to participate their interview, this way is not a random test for confirming this question. Maybe a more meticulous logical thinking will be concerned. I like this topic. Thank you.

    November 11, 2010 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. NoSuchThingAsAnOpinion

    My mind wanders a lot http://nosuchthingasanopinion.blogspot.com/

    November 11, 2010 at 22:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Anthony f Willis

    edited for content! The little things we over look each day really do matter...

    November 11, 2010 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jason

    I'm pretty sure that desire for food is universal throughout the animal kingdom - humans, lions, bears, monkeys, and so on. The same goes for sex. Both are instinctual and necessary for the continuation of the species. A wandering mind does not fall into that category. How you can compare the two makes no sense to me.

    November 11, 2010 at 22:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Learn science

    Correlation does not equal causation. It's just as plausible that the direction of causation is the other way around: Being unhappy makes your mind wander.

    November 11, 2010 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • NOVANative

      Bingo! It is well known that one of the symptoms of even mild depression is difficulty concentrating. How this supposed study ignored that fact is beyond me.

      November 12, 2010 at 16:49 | Report abuse |
    • Michele Gomis

      And what else was missing from this study? Its participants, after all, self selected.

      It must be politically incorrect nowadays to speak of self discipline and the consequences due to lack of it. Or perhaps unhappiness (or unrecognized depression) and lack of focus might be the consequence (or symptom) of empty, direction-less lives?

      Just a thought....

      November 13, 2010 at 16:44 | Report abuse |
  8. RichCat

    So what, I hope Apple pays them to find out what makes iphone users happy! (disgruntled android user)
    (not edited for nothing)

    November 11, 2010 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jon

    Wait... but isn't distraction a known symptom of depression? So am I unhappy because my mind's wandering, or is my mind wandering because I'm unhappy?

    November 11, 2010 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. zounds

    Making love, exercising, engaging in conversation. The least: Resting, working, using a home computer. Hmmmm..do doing both cancel out the other?, e.g.,
    Using a home computer while having an online conversation, resting between
    love making, excercising while working?

    November 11, 2010 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Eric

    Any lack of focus on the part of my students on their upcoming final exam will make them very unhappy, indeed.

    November 12, 2010 at 03:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. mr


    November 12, 2010 at 05:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. marco mauas

    Does it include the effort to concentrate in this study?
    This study is distracting.

    November 12, 2010 at 05:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. dlongj

    Doesn't the fact that someone is using an iPhone app while making love mean their mind is wandering?

    November 12, 2010 at 06:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Peter S. Chamberlain

    Child "already inclined to crime" just might include the entire human race. How measured?
    Infinite number of different possible traumatic brain injuries, at different ages, might have different results, how tabulated?
    I was born with occipital lobe damage, etc., plus substantial agenesis of corpus collossum connecting irght and left brain hemispheres, vision, deth perception, coordination problmes, and formerly suicidal clinical depression, but high verbal abilities before and after some notable concussions. Retired lawyer. Would probably have been aborted today. No criminal history. Know many with brain trauma and it correlates with violence or crimes of moral turpitude about as well as liking anchovies on pizza.
    One possible link: child abuse to brain trauma to learned antisocial behavior with or without measureable serious brain trauma. But many I know well who experienced horrific child abuse, including some with documented significant brain damage, are not abusive, violent, or antisocial.
    My dog could design a better study than the part of this described. Junk science.

    November 12, 2010 at 06:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Rick McDaniel

    Tell us something we didn't already know.

    November 12, 2010 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Melissa

    rofl. Computers are my main hobby. I'm quite happy using computers. It makes me very excited to be working on one. And how can one not be happy while resting? I like resting. I have an active imagination. One of the times when I'm at peace the most is when I'm at rest because I can use my imagination without distraction.

    think whoever made up this insane study is losing their minds.

    November 12, 2010 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michele Gomis

      Delightful post. Agreed. I LIKE working on my PC, too. Also have an active imagination, and I too, let it go while at rest because that's a time when there are no distractions. Good ideas brew during those times.

      Sign me,
      Intelligent, imaginative, creative and NOT depressed or distracted.
      It's OK to be OK, OK?

      November 13, 2010 at 16:58 | Report abuse |
  18. Soledad's Sister

    CNN keeps deleting my posts because they are in a dark font.......HOw dare you CNN!!!!

    November 12, 2010 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Traumatized Poster

    There I was just reading an Article on CNN's webpage and I thought I would post my opinion but it was deleted...Am I not equal to other readers and posters? am I inferior?Wow.... is my opinion not as good as others? Depression sank in ...Thanks CNN!!!

    November 12, 2010 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Keith O

      I hope you overcome these heartbreaking conditions...No one should be ostracized like that...You should stand up to a bully...You are welcome at msnbc..WE welcome lively discussions..............

      November 12, 2010 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
  20. Traumatized Poster

    Thanks Keith I have battled soooooooooooo much to bring myself back here..I think CNN does like the color of my fonts ...
    I also think debt is the new slavery..I am in debt so my posts are not worth as much....I hope one day I will become empowered .......

    November 12, 2010 at 12:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Snarky



    November 12, 2010 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. ElizardBETH Crowinn Senior Big DOG Medical Gossip Spreader

    **************************************breaking news************************
    ******************************************************************TESTING DONE AT CNN IN ATLANTA............

    *****************************************************STAY TUNED********************************

    November 12, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. M. McIntyre, Ph.D.

    A study which only includes people who have a downloaded a particular app to a particular kind of phone can hardly be considered valid for the general population. This is lazy research which should not be taken seriously. The selection method may very well have biased the results. For example, people who prefer iPhones or who are interested in this particular app may have certain common personality traits that led to these conclusions. These Harvard researchers know better and should be ashamed of themselves for promoting questionable conclusions.

    November 13, 2010 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Old Scratch

    One of the principals of Taoism has just been reinforced accidentally by Harvard.

    November 14, 2010 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Robert Bundy

    "...which are clearly afford..."

    Oops, somebody's mind wandered.

    November 14, 2010 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Debbie DeLozier

    In 1958 as my mother was close to giving birth to me, the nurse on duty was annoyed by her yelling and slammed her head on the metal gurney. This caused her to have a bad concussion, so bad that my Aunt had to take care of me for a few weeks. What does a concussion do to a fetus?

    November 27, 2010 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Hisako Newcomb

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    March 6, 2021 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply

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