What happens when you let your mind wander? Studies have shown when a human mind has nothing specific to think about, it becomes chaotic, flitting from one thought to another in a random way. But if any mind — your mind, my mind — keeps wandering, before long, our thoughts will land on something that grabs our attention: some fear or frustration or unfinished business. You know what this is like: Your mind sticks there, like a tire spinning in the mud, dwelling on the worrisome or upsetting thought, and it ruins your mood. This is what happens to a mind without a purpose.
Having a purpose on your mind keeps your thoughts from devolving into chaos and bad moods. You can’t stop your mind from thinking, but when you have a goal to think about, your mental resources are less likely to drift randomly into upsetting thoughts. They have someplace to go.
That’s why studies show that people are more often in a good mood while working than they are in their free time. It seems unbelievable at first, but it is easily explained by the need for purpose. Most people are more likely to have clear purposes at work than at home.
It is common knowledge that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but the important factor, the factor that gets you out of the devil’s workshop, is something you need to do that compels your attention.
Remember that: Something you need to do that compels your attention. That’s the key — think of it as vitamin P.
The human mind needs a purpose. It’s like the ocelot scratching off his fur at the Seattle Zoo. The zookeepers didn’t know what to do about it. They gave him a female, but he kept skinning himself. They changed his diet. They changed his cage. But he kept clawing at himself.
Finally, someone realized that in the wild, ocelots eat birds. So instead of giving the ocelot meat to eat, they threw an unplucked chicken into the cage. Sure enough, the ocelot — using the same clawing movements he was using on himself — plucked the feathers out of that chicken and stopped skinning himself. Your mind is like that. It needs a bone to chew or it’ll chew the furniture. It needs a purpose. And not just any purpose, but something that challenges you, engages you, something you intend to accomplish, something you want, something real and concrete. Your mind aligns around that goal instead of being pulled into negativity, and you’re happier.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.