Scientists from The University of Western Australia have examined people’s thought patterns when their mind wanders and found a link to their level of optimism and happiness.
It is estimated that our minds can spend up to half of our waking life wandering away from the present moment, particularly when we are bored or when a thought is prioritised by the brain to be more important than what we are currently doing.
In a study led by Dr Julie Ji from UWA’s School of Psychological Science, and published in the journal Psychological Research, more than 40 participants were asked to complete a simple 45-minute sustained attention task on the computer, designed to be boring in order to encourage minds to wander.
The computer task also allowed participants to record the occurrence of mind wandering each time it happened, including whether their minds had wandered to the future or past, whether their thoughts involved mental pictures or words only, and how negative or positive the thoughts were.
Dr Ji said people who were less likely to imagine positive aspects of the future when mind wandering were also less optimistic about the future, which was in turn linked to higher levels of negative mood (sadness, anxiety, unhappiness).
“These findings are important because although we know that being optimistic about the future is really important for our mental and physical health, we don’t know much about what contributes to our day-to-day levels of optimism.”Dr Julie Ji
“This study is unique in delving into this question, which is particularly crucial to understand in the current pandemic context, when pessimism about the future is taking its emotional toll on many.”
Dr Ji said previous research tended to treat optimism as something fixed – either you are an optimistic person or you are not.
“But this study suggests that our spontaneous thoughts about the future, particularly those involving mental pictures, may influence our current levels of optimism and mood,” she said.
Dr Ji said of more than 900 mind-wandering thoughts recorded in the study, 15 per cent were about the future, 36 per cent were about the past, 31 per cent were about the present, and the remaining 18 per cent were abstract thoughts.
“What is really interesting is not only do we spend a lot of time thinking about the past and future, but the vast majority of these thoughts involve mental pictures, whereas we don’t see this for thoughts that aren’t about the past or future,” she said.
Dr Ji said the study increased understanding of the cognitive factors shaping our gut feelings about how the future would turn out, which may have implications for addressing mood and anxiety problems.
“People may not realise that their mind wandering contributes to their mental health and can contribute to vicious cycles of negative thought patterns that are difficult to break,” she said.
Dr Ji hopes the results will help boost clinical research into mental imagery-based future thinking and provide new avenues for developing interventions to alleviate depression and anxiety in individuals.