Meditation gives us an honest perspective of our mind’s ability to wander. This aimless thinking is fascinating as the direction of the wandering is truly random and unpredictable much of the time. Mind wandering is a difficult thing to study but Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) gave it a shot – they found they when they asked study participants at random times throughout the day what they were thinking about at that moment, the participants reported that they were mind wandering almost half of the time. Further investigation revealed that when the participants were mind wandering they reported being in a lower mood and that the act of mind wandering tended to predict negative mood.
Further studies dug deeper and revealed that the impact that mind wandering has on mood depends on what one is mind wandering about. Negative mood tends to be associated with mind wandering that is sad, anxious and thinking of the past. Positive mood tends to be associated with mind wandering about the future. (Ruby, Smallwood, Engen, & Singer, 2013)
A recent study by Crosswell et al (2020) examined the daily life of 183 mid-life women. Half of the women were raising a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder resulting in high psychological stress. Half of the women were raising neurotypical children and reported below average levels of perceived stress. Over 21 days they tracked mind states, moods and stressful events. The findings revealed that chronic stress was associated with more unpleasant mind-wandering as well as rejection of the present moment and more negative evening moods compared to the women reporting low stress. The authors link these results to previous findings that rejection of present moment experience is associated with greater perceived stress, rumination, and shorter telomere length.
We may not always be able to control our stress levels due to life circumstances but using mindfulness and meditation we can strive to spend more time with our mind in the present moment. These studies provide further support to the idea that if we do so, at the end of the day we are more likely to be feeling content and centred.
Crosswell AD, Coccia M, Epel ES. Mind wandering and stress: When you don’t like the present moment. Emotion. 2020;20(3):403-412.
Engert, V., Smallwood, J., & Singer, T. (2014). Mind your thoughts: Associations between self-generated thoughts and stress-induced and baseline levels of cortisol and alpha-amylase. Biological Psychology, 103, 283–291
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.