414: Lately

A Thousand Things to Talk About
414: Lately

What have you been thinking about lately?

Show notes and links:
Scientific American
Harvard News

Full episode script

According to a study in 2010 that was carried out mostly through an iPhone app trying to figure out what it is that people actually spend their time thinking about, instead of what they report themselves thinking about in surveys based on their own memory.

That study, based on a quarter of a million data points, found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. Done by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, the study was built to interrupt people in their daily life to ask what they were doing, what they were thinking about, and their emotional state.
Quoting from Scientific American:

In addition to awakening us to just how much our minds wander, the study clearly showed that we’re happiest when thinking about what we’re doing. Although imagining pleasant alternatives was naturally preferable to imagining unpleasant ones, the happiest scenario was to not be imagining at all. A person who is ironing a shirt and thinking about ironing is happier than a person who is ironing and thinking about a sunny getaway.

So why is this? What is it about focusing on what we are doing that helps us be happier individuals? Quoting again from Scientific American:

Recent fMRI scanning studies show that even when we’re quietly at rest and following instructions to think of nothing in particular, our brains settle into a conspicuous pattern of activity that corresponds to mind-wandering. This signature ‘resting’ activity is coordinated across several widespread brain areas, and is argued by many to be evidence of a brain network that is active by default. Under this view our brains climb out of the default state when we’re bombarded with input, or facing a challenging task, but tend to slide back into it once things quiet down.

This all talks about how our brains work and how they may impact our overall happiness and momentary focus. What is even more interesting to me, however, is what it is that your mind wanders to and about in that almost 50 percent of the time we aren’t thinking about what we’re doing.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.