Consistent with previous studies, people reported mind wandering about half the time. Mind wandering was frequent for almost every activity they were involved in—the exception was “making love.” (Presumably these subjects waited until they were finished before answering the iPhone prompt.)
The novel finding was that the sages were right: People were less happy when their minds were wandering. In fact, whether or not they were mind wandering had more of an influence on their happiness than the activity they were actually involved in. As Killingsworth and Gilbert say in their title: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
It's not just daydreaming that makes us unhappy. Take another form of imaginative escape—the involuntary act of dreaming. The most common dream that people report isn’t anything enjoyable. It’s being chased.
Or consider the fictions we choose to engage with. Often these are positive, corresponding to events and experiences that we would enjoy in everyday life, sometimes by empathizing with an imaginary protagonist who is doing something pleasant. But many popular types of fiction correspond to experiences that are unpleasant or worse. Many of us are drawn to horror—to gruesome stories of zombies, cannibals, serial killers, torture chambers, and the like. Others prefer sadness—the young mother dying of cancer, the child with leukemia; stories of betrayal, loss, real human suffering. We pay for experiences that make us shudder and weep.
David Hume spoke of this “unaccountable pleasure” experienced by audiences of tragedies, and was savvy enough to point out that the negative emotions evoked by tragedy are a feature, not a bug: “The more they are touched and affected, the more they are delighted with the spectacle.”
It’s weird that our minds work this way. From an evolutionary perspective, you might expect that we would be driven to act in ways that have positive adaptive consequences, increasing our odds of survival and reproduction. But where’s the value in spending so much time thinking about unpleasant events that are not real?
Perhaps it’s an evolutionary accident. Our feelings can be insensitive to the difference between the real and the imagined. This is how pornography works—an image can evoke much the same response as the real thing. And so we might be captivated by horrible imagined events because thinking about actual horrible things is of obvious importance—if someone is plotting to kill you, it’s worth thinking about it, however unpleasant—and, to at least some extent, we treat the imaginary as if it were real.
But there might be something else going on. To give a sense of an alternative, think about the recent movie, “Edge of Tomorrow.”
It takes place in a near future in which the Earth is attacked by aliens. Tom Cruise plays a public relations officer with no combat experience who ends up engaged in battle, and is promptly killed. For reasons too complicated to get into here, he finds himself in a time loop, and is reborn before the battle begins, with memories of the events leading up to his death. He is able to learn from his past experience, and so he fights over and over again, getting better each time, until ultimately he defeats the aliens. The movie’s tagline is: Live. Die. Repeat.