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updated 11/18/2010 11:51:32 AM ET 2010-11-18T16:51:32

There's a good chance your mind is drifting right now, suggests a new study. And even if your daydreams are pleasant, you'd likely be happier if you just focused on what you're doing.

The study, which periodically contacted people through their iPhones, encountered wandering minds close to half the time.

When people's minds were disconnected from their actions, they were generally less happy than when they were truly engaged in a task -- no matter what they were doing or what they were daydreaming about.

While previous work has found that people who are depressed tend to have more trouble focusing, the new study is the first to suggest that mind wandering also causes discontent.

"People often think about pursuing happiness in terms of choosing the right activities and external experiences," said Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge.

"Based on our data, we find that much more important than the activity you're engaging in is how often you leave the present and what you think about when you do," he added. "If you could actually focus on the present and remain focused, you might get more pleasure out of an experience than if you were pleasantly distracted."

Daydreaming is a helpful human ability that opens up a world of possibility. As we reflect on the past, dream about the future, and imagine things that may never happen, our lives grow richer. Creativity blossoms. New ideas emerge. But how happy does mind wandering, itself, make us?

To find out, Killingsworth and colleagues developed an iPhone application, available for anyone to download at the site TrackYourHappiness.org.

The app, which is part of an ongoing study on happiness, pings users at various times through the day. As soon as they can after hearing a ping, users pick from a list of 22 activities that they are doing right now.

Among other questions, the app asks users if they are thinking about something other than what they are doing, and if so, whether those thoughts are positive, negative or neutral. Users also rate how happy they feel.

Based on data collected from 2,250 people, the researchers reported today in the journal Science, people thought about something other than what they were doing nearly 47 percent of the time.

Daydreaming was most common during personal care activities, like tooth brushing and showering. It was least common during sex, when the rate of mind wandering dipped to just 10 percent. (Users are told to respond as soon as they are able). For every other activity, the daydreaming rate was higher than 30 percent.

"It really hits home just how ubiquitous mind wandering is," said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's a massively frequent mental state."

On a 100-point happiness scale, people rated themselves an average about 9 points lower when their minds were somewhere else, the study found. Happiness fell most when people thought about negative or neutral topics. But thinking pleasant thoughts didn't help.

The findings offer support for activities like yoga and mediation, which aim to calm the wandering mind and anchor people in the present. On the other hand, Schooler said, being happy all the time isn't necessarily the most important goal.

"If you have a difficult problem to work out, it may cause you temporary unhappiness to solve it," he said. "But in the long run, having thought about it, you will solve it, and your overall happiness will increase."

Instead of ruminating on your problems, Schooler suggested trying to daydream with purpose. His research suggests that creative ideas usually spring up during periods of mind wandering.

So, when your mind inevitably drifts elsewhere, it might help to seek solutions to your problems, or to reflect on books you've read, movies you've seen, or conversations you've had.

"Those kinds of creative musings are very valuable, and I think it would be a great idea if people could identify a repertoire of ideas they'd like to think about," he said. "A great actual topic for mind wandering is thinking about mind wandering. It's very rich."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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