• 11.12.10

Track Your Happiness iPhone Study Finds That Your Mind Is Wandering Too Much

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the researchers conclude. In other news: having sex makes people happy. It was the one activity where people reported mind-wandering less than 30% of the time.

Apple Store iPhone customer

The iPhone, increasingly ubiquitous these days, can add another node to its “Where I’ve Been” widget: the pages of the leading research journal Science. A pair of Harvard psychologists used an iPhone app as the principal research tool for a study on happiness, published today in the journal.


The “Track Your Happiness” app, we noted
when it first launched, periodically pings you throughout the day,
asking you to fill out a survey that only takes a minute. It asks how
happy you are, what you’re doing at the moment, whether you exercised
recently, whether you’re alone, and whether your mind is either
wandering or in the moment.

That last question proved to
be the key to the study, which concluded that a
main cause of people’s unhappiness is how frequently their minds wander.
According to the app, 46.9 percent of people’s time is spent thinking
on something other than what they’re doing. And using a bit of
statistical wizardry, study authors Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel
Gilbert were able to tease out that that mind-wandering was in fact the
cause of much of the unhappiness. In fact, what activity a person was
engaged in only accounted for about 5 percent of a person’s happiness, whereas
whether that person’s mind was on- or off-task accounted for over 10 percent.


Typical happiness studies might rely on surveys requiring
participants to stretch their memory or provide rough estimates (“How
did you feel this past month?”). By using the iPhone app, researchers
were able to sample moment-to-moment happiness levels. And, naturally,
drum up some tech press to recruit volunteers–the researchers racked up
250,000 data points for their study.

It’s an interesting study, though we’d love to see even more metrics. A British imitator called “Mappiness” has been trying to study the effects of place on happiness. And of course, one has to consider that iPhone users are not representative of the general population of smart-phone users, let alone of America or of the world. Apple users tend to be satisfied, according to a recent survey–even when an app is interrupting them while they’re making love.

[Image: Flickr user ryanoelke]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.