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If You're A Daydream Believer, Reconsider: Harvard Study Finds People Happier When They Focus On The Moment

This article is more than 10 years old.

By Marielle Segarra
WBUR intern

Has your life coach, therapist, or Zen-like best friend ever told you to live in the present?

The advice is common, and seemingly impossible, for a reason.

A new study out of Harvard finds that daydreaming makes you less happy than you would be if you focused on the present moment. But the study also suggests that daydreaming can be difficult to snap out of: the minds of the 2500 study participants wandered 47 percent of the day.

The study, conducted by Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert and graduate student Matthew Killingsworth, monitored the activities and thoughts of each participant through an iPhone application that asked questions throughout the day. The application asked what people were doing, whether they were focused on their activities, and how happy they were.

The findings:

● People were less happy when their minds wandered, regardless of whether they were working, dancing, shopping, or doing anything else. The one exception was sex. Participants were generally happy and focused during that (except for the time it took for them to answer the iPhone application, one might assume).

● Participants' minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics than unpleasant ones, but they were still not as happy when daydreaming as they were when they focused on the present moment.


It's possible people are happier when engaged in the present because they find these moments engaging for immeasurable or imperceptible reasons. So when they're living in these objectively positive or negative moments, they are happy.

But the ultimate question is whether a scientific study can accurately measure happiness. If happiness is a passing feeling, the time it takes to answer an iPhone application may throw off the measurement. But if happiness is a long-term, steady state of being, perhaps your feelings in each moment cannot indicate how happy you are.

There's more on the study in the Harvard Gazette here.

This program aired on November 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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