When we have a task at hand, we normally find ourselves thinking about an irrelevant subject like our upcoming holiday or what we will have for dinner. This is quite a common situation and is called “mind-wandering”. In fact, studies show that the average person spends up to one-third of their lives mind-wandering.

So, what sort of an effect does this mind-wandering have on us? Well, it depends on a bunch of different factors such as whether it’s purposeful or spontaneous, what exactly we’re thinking about, and how we feel at that moment. In some cases, mind-wandering can help us become more creative and productive, and even make us feel better. A study showed that mind-wandering improved people’s creativity beyond the positive effects of their reading ability or fluid intelligence, and the general ability to solve problems or puzzles. It seems that taking our focus off of the task and instead mind-wander could be critical to our success when we’re working on something.

When it comes to the relationship between our mood and a wandering mind, studies point out that mood affects mind-wandering more than mind-wandering affects mood. Therefore, if you’re feeling sad, it may lead to unhappy mind-wandering, but that mind-wandering itself doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad mood later on. In contrast, when our minds wander to positive things, we may experience positive feelings that extend our attention and allow us to engage in the present moment more and increase our potential for caring. However, this is not always the case for our caring potential. Another study revealed that a wandering mind can be less caring especially when our minds wander to unpleasant or neutral topics rather than positive ones. According to research on mind-wandering and happiness, we are considerably unhappier when thinking about these neutral or unpleasant topics than when focusing on our current activity.

Another feature that mind-wandering has an impact on is our task performance. A recent study shows that our performance depends on whether our mind-wandering is “task-related” or “off-task”. If our mind wanders to something unrelated to the task we are working on, this has an adverse effect on our performance.

To summarise, a wandering mind can affect us in many positive ways if we manage to be aware of this process. And to achieve that, researchers suggest that we can benefit from meditation and mindfulness practices which can facilitate more positive mind-wandering.

For further reading

Jazaieri, H., Lee, I. A., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R. (2016). A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(1), 37-50.

Kane, M. J., Smeekens, B. A., von Bastian, C. C., Lurquin, J. H., Carruth, N. P., & Miyake, A. (2017). A combined experimental and individual-differences investigation into mind wandering during a video lecture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(11), 1649–1674.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

Poerio, G. L., Totterdell, P., & Miles, E. (2013). Mind-wandering and negative mood: Does one thing really lead to another?. Consciousness and cognition, 22(4), 1412-1421.

Preiss, D. D., Cosmelli, D., Grau, V., & Ortiz, D. (2016). Examining the influence of mind wandering and metacognition on creativity in university and vocational students. Learning and Individual Differences, 51, 417-426.

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