that a wandering mind can be less caring. Specifically, mind-wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics (rather than pleasant topics) predicted less caring behavior toward oneself and others on a given day. Meanwhile, mind-wandering to pleasant topics actually predicted more caring behavior toward oneself and others.
Given prior research suggesting that when our minds wander we’re unhappy, it’s possible that mind-wandering to negative events produces negative emotions that narrow our attention and lead us to miss opportunities for caring. In contrast, when our minds wander to positive events, we may experience positive feelings that broaden our attention and allow us to more fully engage in the present moment and the potential for caring. Past research is a bit mixed on whether people are actually happier when thinking about pleasant topics rather than engaging in the present, so additional studies are needed to explicitly investigate this.
Fortunately, our research suggests that training in compassion may be able to alter the habitual patterns of mind-wandering. Prior to the compassion program, participants’ minds were wandering about 59.1 percent of the time, a higher rate than earlier studies have reported (46.9 percent). At the end of the nine-week program, however, their overall mind-wandering had decreased to 54.5 percent of the time, including a slight increase in mind-wandering to pleasant topics.
More importantly, when participants reported engaging in compassion meditation practices on a given day, they also reported less mind-wandering to unpleasant topics and more mind-wandering to pleasant topics. Thus, regular compassion practice may have the dual effect of increasing and decreasing different types of mind-wandering.
Focus is not only important for reasons of well-being and productivity, but morality as well.