That seems to be the conclusion of the recent Track Your Happiness Survey:
Our lives are most enjoyable and content when we are completely focused on the job in hand – even more than when we are daydreaming about pleasant thoughts.
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” their study concluded.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Telegraph: Why our wandering minds are making us miserable
I’m skeptical about causation here – could it actually be that when we’re doing something we enjoy, we’re less likely to let our minds wander? Wouldn’t that be a symptom, not a cause, of unhappiness? Here are the things that cause mind wandering, according to the study: “resting, working or using our home computer.” The things we are doing when most focused: “sex, exercising or in intense conversations with friends.”
The methodology of the survey is somewhat questionable as well: it required people to self-report their levels of “happiness” at different times during the day and answer assorted other questions like “do you have to be doing what you’re doing right now” and “do you want to do be doing what you’re doing right now.”
For what it’s worth, I tried participating in the survey, but found it to be a hassle and quit doing it. The questions were often vague and difficult to answer accurately, especially if I had to fill out the survey hours after it came in. One thing I found especially difficult is that when I was fully engaged in something, I was a lot less likely to be aware of whether I was happy or not.
A quick note on the results: since you can put in anything you want for “what are you doing,” it’s possible that particular tasks done on a home computer (like “working on my screenplay,” “sequencing electronic music,” or “reading my favorite blog” were broken out separately, unjustly maligning “home computer” usage).
Amber Case has a write-up about her participation in the survey here.
Update: This New Scientist story has more:
Crucially, episodes of mind-wandering tended to precede bouts of low mood, but not vice versa, suggesting that the former caused the latter. […]
“This is a really solid piece of work,” says Jonathan Smallwood at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says that mind-wandering and levels of happiness have been linked in laboratory studies, but never before in such a large population of people going about their daily lives.
But the claim that mind-wandering causes unhappiness needs to be further evaluated, he adds, because he and others have shown the effect can run in the opposite direction. In laboratory experiments, he found that lowering a person’s mood, perhaps by showing them a video about a sad story, led to more mind-wandering.
“It’s difficult to make causal claims,” says Smallwood. “But it’s undoubtedly the case that negative mood and mind-wandering are inextricably linked.”
Oh, and see also:
What the Brain is Doing When it is “Idle”