The gentleman who runs Shadow To Light asked me to take a look at a paper which Sam Harris approvingly quoted. The 2010 peer-reviewed one-page paper shares today’s title (sans question mark) and was written by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, appearing in Science.
The pair are from Harvard which allowed them, it appears, to garner national attention for their project, which asked people to log onto the website TrackYourHappiness.org. The website boasts itself as “a new scientific research project that investigates what makes life worth living.”
Which is an immediate failure in the narrow sense that science must remain forever mute on what makes life worth living. That is the task of religion, philosophy, literature, and other arts. Saying science can tell us means the billions of people who lived before (say) 1500 had no clue why they were happy or sad. But never mind.
The 5,000 or so participants had to have a (surprise) iPhone, which was in part given over to alerting holders, via text message or email, from 1 to 3 times a day, to answer several questions, including in what activity were they engaging, whether their “minds” were “wandering”, and how numerically happy they were.
How long after receiving these messages it took participants to answer I couldn’t discover—perhaps their minds were wandering when they were received?—but since some people reported engaging in sexual intercourse and others in driving, it might have been appreciable. But perhaps iPhone users are more dedicated to their hand machines than I suspect?
Anyway, everybody was contacted from between 1 and 39, average 8, times; compliance was about 83%, meaning not everybody responded to every message.
The authors say, “Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them,” which is true. That is because humans are rational beings, which implies having wander-capable minds, and other animals do not. Yet somehow from this the authors conclude:
Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?
Living in the moment? If your mind is always “in the moment”, how does it escape into the next moment and have more than one thought? Skip it.
The authors claim to to have “solved” the problem of sampling people’s thoughts with their iPhone app. And that was to ask participants “How are you feeling right now?” (from 0 to 100) and “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” Such as letting the traffic before you dissolve and instead think about designing an internet survey? Or not paying attention to the television commercial (several participants claimed to be watching TV) and thinking about something more pleasant?
Now comes the wee p-values. “[M]ultilevel regression revealed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not”, confirmed, as said, by a wee p-value. Further, and in the category of Who Knew?: “people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (42.5% of samples) than to unpleasant topics (26.5% of samples) or neutral topics (31% of samples)”.
But wasn’t it just the case that when faced with dull or familiar topics, participants’ minds would wander? And wouldn’t whether their minds wandered into happy or sad places depend on the (unsampled) nature of what urgent matters were pressing down on participants’ minds, and don’t negative matters cause us to consider them more urgently than positive ones?
They say no. “[T]ime-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.” Time-lag analysis? In supplementary material, they say: “We used multilevel regression to determine whether there was a relationship between happiness in given sample (T) and mind-wandering in the previous sample (T-1) and/or the next sample (T+1).” The conclusion of which was
…we found a strong negative relationship between mind-wandering at T-1 and happiness at T, but no relationship between mind-wandering at T+1 and happiness at T. In other words, a personâ€™s happiness was strongly related to whether they had been mind-wandering in the previous sample, but was unrelated to whether they were mind-wandering in the next sample.
This is a silly statistical procedure, of course. The times were not constant, the things thought about where not constant or controlled for, and then consider some samples came from previous days. And also that quantifying happiness on a numerical scale, as often as it is done, is absurd. Is my “50” the same as yours? Is my “50” the same as my “50” yesterday?
The problem with this study is the same as that with “big data”, incidentally. The ability to collect massive amounts of “data”, most of it highly suspect, does not bring about an increase in intelligence.
Update On religions not wanting your mind to wander, listen to this speech by Peter Kreeft, starting about here.