The Emotional Expense of Distraction

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” So says the title of a study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. These Harvard psychologists found that, when our minds are out of tune with the present moment, it’s corrosive to our emotional state. If we are doing one thing and yet thinking about another, our spirits drop—even if what we’re thinking about is something pleasant. It’s not that what we think about doesn’t matter, though. Gilbert and Killingsworth found that the emotions of their participants correlated more strongly with the content of their distractions than with what they were actually experiencing in the observable world. Put succinctly: Being distracted makes you feel worse, and if what you’re distracted by is negative, you’ll feel even worse still. Furthermore, this “emotional expense” of mind wandering comes about regardless of whether we’re thinking about the past, the future, or pure fantasy. In other words, our busy brains eat away at our enjoyment of life over things that we can’t do anything about, that haven’t happened, or that will never come into being at all.

The busy beehive of the brain exhausts us. It buzzes endlessly, sapping our resources. We might manage to find an “off” switch, but it always turns out to be a snooze button leaving us to wake up to the same buzzing 10 minutes later. That is, if we even sleep. The same broken record that exhausts us during the day also has the power to keep us up at night. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that about 30 percent of us experience insomnia, and it lasts three months or longer for an unlucky 15 to 20 percent of us. The main cause of insomnia is a mind activated by stress—an overabundance of concerns and thoughts about work, family, school, finances, and so on. And then we medicate our untamable mind just to get some sleep. Nine million Americans are now taking prescription sleep medications. Most of these medications are habit forming and don’t resolve the underlying source of the problem, leaving insomnia to reemerge once the meds are stopped.

It doesn’t help at all that the contemporary situation for many people, especially in the West, places unprecedented demands on us. We are expected to wear more hats, be adept in more roles, be increasingly flexible in our careers, keep up with an ever-growing number of people and events via an infinite array of social media platforms (the very same platforms that are shrinking our attention spans, no less), ad infinitum. Did the generations preceding us have laundry lists like ours to keep up with? At the very least, they weren’t reachable when they were away from home or not at their desk. They couldn’t be “pinged” on any one of 12 apps on their phone by someone who is expecting a response within hours, if not minutes. (Fun fact: Every time our phones go off, our blood pressure spikes. The buzzing and bleeping of our phones put our bodies on a small but significant emotional roller coaster all day every day.) Yet, the issue of overstimulation and continual distraction is as old as they come. The Buddha could have told you about Killingsworth and Gilbert’s findings 2,500 years ago: “Nothing can hurt you more than an untrained mind, and nothing can help you more than a well-trained mind.”

While it is entirely possible to bend our thoughts toward happiness, this strategy merely manages the content of our thoughts and does little to address the deeper root of the issue. In the freight train of the mind, our thoughts are only the caboose. If we are to truly address that which drains our days and usurps our nights, we want to find our way to the locomotive, where we can deal with the steam engine.

Where psychologists might help someone reframe and rewrite their thinking—to train the monkey, so to speak—meditators often have an equally one-dimensional approach: they try to kill the monkey. In meditation circles, some unintended connotations of the Buddha’s monkey metaphor prevail: that the thinking mind is a dirty, primitive, lower life form of no real value to us; it’s just a bunch of garbage on repeat. (Take out the trash, already.) Yet this viewpoint contradicts a key tenet of neuroscience: The brain can’t not be doing something. Its very nature is to be in perpetual motion. Imagine standing in front of a fire and judging, shaming, and resenting it for being hot. Sounds both ridiculous and futile, right? Yet this is exactly how many of us meditators try to deal with our monkey minds.

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Reprinted with permission from The Monkey Is the Messenger, ©2018 by Ralph De La Rosa.

Ralph De La Rosa is a psychotherapist specializing in trauma-focused work, a seasoned meditation instructor, and author of The Monkey Is a Messenger.

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