We all have moments where we enter autopilot mode and “zone out” or “get lost in thought” — whether it’s during a car ride home, taking a shower, a break from work, or trying to rest.
Our minds tell us stories, and we drift along with them. We constantly think about what is not happening in the moment and, above all else, about ourselves! We think about what others think of us, what we would like to become, problems we need to solve, and situations we would like to experience. We recall past moments and restructure them in our own way or anticipate future ones. Either way, to our minds, we are the center of the universe.
For example, this is how it typically goes:
“Today I did well… I said what I wanted to say in the meeting… Oh, that’s right, I can’t forget to call Miguel. He called me a week ago, and he’ll probably start saying that I don’t care about people. Maybe he’s right. Is it possible that everyone thinks that of me but doesn’t tell me? But it’s true… I don’t think I’m giving people enough attention. I’m going to start talking more with them! Yes, that’s it. Tomorrow I’ll take the opportunity to call Diogo and Ana as well. Yeah, I’ll do that! If only I had more time… I’m always working and I’m always tired. Speaking of work… When I get home, I can’t forget to send that email.”
The mind wanders about 47% of our waking time. And when we daydream, we activate the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is a network of interconnected brain regions that become active when our minds are not focused on external factors, but instead engage in spontaneous thoughts and self-referential thinking. In other words, when our minds do not have a specific task to pay attention to, the DMN activates, as the mind needs constant stimulation.
The brain does not intend to give us tranquility
It’s important to note that the DMN is involved in creative processes (allowing us to imagine parallel realities), decision-making (by formulating solutions and anticipating future situations), memory recall, and moments of self-reflection and introspection.
However, spending too much time ruminating on subjective ideas about ourselves, how others see us, and our past and future can also bring a great deal of suffering, leading to depressive and anxious symptoms. The longer we spend entangled in thoughts, the more automatic this process becomes.
In fact, we have the ability to suffer in the absence of the stimulus that causes it — we anticipate negative situations (e.g., an important meeting for which I don’t feel prepared) and relive difficult memories (e.g., when I felt humiliated in a past meeting) while disconnecting completely from the present moment.
Our brain is “wired” for survival, not for giving us tranquility. Thinking through language is often a way to seek threats (and how good our brain is at finding negative cues at the expense of positive ones!) and solutions to them. We need to feel in control of our lives, and mind-wandering ultimately serves that purpose — making us feel like we’re solving what needs to be solved.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost”
Why does “daydreaming” make us less happy?
In a study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, it was confirmed that our minds tend to wander in practically any everyday activity (whether pleasant or not), with less wandering during sex. They found that people were less happy when their minds were wandering, regardless of the activity they were engaged in. In other words, mind-wandering is a better predictor of happiness than the activity itself.
We can, therefore, reflect on this: more important than what we choose to do is how we experience the moment. Being present, no matter if the moment is “good” or “bad,” brings us a greater sense of happiness!
Experience instead of rationalize
How can we be more present?
We know that mindfulness helps to reduce activity in the DMN (Scheibner, Bogler, Gleich, Haynes, & Bermpohl, 2017) by allowing us to bring our attention to the present moment, distancing ourselves from the entanglement of habitual thoughts. We can practice mindfulness in various ways: formally (through guided meditations) or informally (during daily activities), and we can direct our attention to internal stimuli (such as breathing and physical sensations) or external stimuli (sounds or visual cues).
Here are some examples of how we can rely on mindfulness in our daily lives (and step away from the usual ruminations of our minds):
• Being at a family lunch and appreciating the facial expressions of our relatives. Noticing the smiles, intonations, and speaking rhythm. Noticing the hand gestures. Actively listening to what they are saying.
• Doing a routine task like washing dishes and noticing the sensation of water between our hands. Noticing the sound of the water and dishes touching each other. Noticing our posture, the position of our body, and the feel of our feet touching the ground.
• Driving in the car and appreciating the music playing on the radio. Noticing the rhythm, instruments, and variations in the music. Noticing the emotions it can evoke.
The goal is to try to experience the world more through our senses and a bit less through ideas. The process is always the same: whenever our mind wanders (which it inevitably will), we can bring it back to the present moment. To do this, we need to be aware of the wandering of our mind at the moment it occurs so that we can choose to return to experiencing the present.
Mindfulness doesn’t silence our mind (since its nature is to tell stories perpetually), but it helps us not to get entangled in the thoughts and stories it tells us. It’s an attentional training that can bring us emotional tranquility.