How Often Are We on Mental Autopilot? You Might Be Surprised

11/17/2010 08:52 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A new study by Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, confirms something we've all suspected: most of us are mentally checked out a good portion of the time.

This study shows that just under half the time, 46.9 percent to be exact, people are doing what's called "mind wandering". They are not focused on the outside world or the task at hand, they are looking into their own thoughts. Unfortunately, the study of 2,250 people proposes, most of this activity doesn't make us feel happy.

The study was designed to find out what kind of activities people did throughout a day, and which made them happiest. Mind wandering was just one of 22 possible activities people could list.

Researchers found that people were at their happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

People reported that they mind wandered no less than 30 percent of the time, during everything except love making. And here's the kicker: people report being unhappy during mind wandering. Something that we do nearly half the time makes us unhappy! No wonder there are so many spiritual and religious traditions trying to implore people to live in the present.

Whether people are mind wandering turns out to be a better predictor of happiness than the actual activities people are engaged in. Think about just one implications of this finding: it explains why one person's hell on earth (say, filling in forms) can be another person's heaven, if they find themselves focused on the task.

This finding, for me, connects back to the whole idea of the narrative circuitry, versus the circuitry for direct experience, that I wrote about in an earlier post, called The Neuroscience of Mindfulness. I think it's worth re-posting some of this here, as it's so relevant.

Mindfulness and the brain

A 2007 study called Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, along with six other scientists, broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.

Farb and his colleagues worked out a way to study how human beings experience their own moment-to-moment experience. They discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the "study by Kirk Brown found that people high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes. Additionally these people had more cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale. If you're on the jetty in the breeze and you're someone with a good level or mindfulness, you are more likely to notice that you're missing a lovely day worrying about tonight's dinner, and focus your attention onto the warm sun instead. When you make this change in your attention, you change the functioning of your brain, and this can have a long-term impact on how your brain works too.

Why we need to keep being reminded about mindfulness
John Teasdale, recently retired, was one of the leading mindfulness researchers. Teasdale explains, "Mindfulness is a habit, it's something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort... it's a skill that can be learned. It's accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn't difficult. What's difficult is to remember to be mindful." I love this last statement. Mindfulness isn't difficult: the hard part is remembering to do it.

Practice, but you don't have to sit down and breathe.
So practicing mindfulness is important, as you're more likely to then remember to do it. The key to practicing mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do so often. It helps to use a rich stream of data. You can hold your attention to the feeling of your foot on the floor easier than the feeling of your little toe on the floor: there's more data to tap into. You can practice mindfulness while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything, with the exception of drinking a beer in the sun, which works for only a limited time before your attention leaves to go and party (the neuroscience of all that will have to wait for another book.)

Building mindfulness doesn't mean you have to sit still and watch your breath. You can find a way that suits your lifestyle. My wife and I built a ten second ritual into the evening meal with my kids, which involves just stopping and noticing three small breaths together before we eat. The added bonus is it makes a great dinner taste even better.

What ever practice you do develop, practice it. The more mindful you become, the more of the world you perceive, and the better decisions you make as a result. On top of it all, being mindful means doing less mind wandering, which means you will feel happier as a result.