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Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind


People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So says a study that used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.

The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, is described this week in the journal Science.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.

Continue Reading Here at the Harvard Gazette

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On Failure At Harvard

On Failure at Harvard

Published: Monday, January 30, 2012

Students at Harvard do not often discuss failure seriously. We sometimes speak ironically about failure, but we won’t talk about it earnestly. We deploy it self-mockingly, which leaves us neither vulnerable nor more self-aware. I wonder if there isn’t something unfortunate about this habit, something that could be gained by talking more earnestly about failure—what it means, if it matters, or what we might learn from it that could serve us well in the future.

Last week I experienced a bout of self-styled failure of the type that seems only possible for seniors on the cusp of “the real world” and all of its discontents. In the span of a few short days, I was rejected by three post-graduate fellowships, my thesis writing stalled in a pool of senseless intellectual muddle, and I realized that I would need to find a job in the coming months. I imagined that my job search would involve marketing myself with catchphrases like “critical thinker” and “well-versed in conceptual analysis and contextualization,” lest I end up back at my parents’ house come September.

What struck me most about all of this was the difficulty in talking about it with people at Harvard—even close friends. I don’t mean that I felt uncomfortable sharing it, about exposing my own ineptitude or disappointment: in fact, I almost always feel more comfortable sharing my failures than I do sharing my successes. Instead, I found that people at Harvard have difficulty holding a serious discussion about failure in the lives of our friends and classmates.

Our immediate response upon hearing about the failures of our friends is dismissal. We explain to them why it was a mistake, a fluke, an error that someone else made, anyone’s fault but theirs. We tell them, “You got passed over for that job/fellowship/law school spot? Impossible. You’re the most qualified person I know. Someone clearly made a mistake.” Or we immediately point to some possible future success and expound upon its inevitability: “What? You didn’t get the Brumblehall Fellowship for the Study of Medieval Armory? Well, you will definitely get the Pumpernickle Fellowship—I have no doubt in my mind.”

When my friends attempt to reassure me in this way, I always want to yell back, “Well, I do have doubt in my mind! In fact, I’m seriously doubting my chances right now, as I should be, since 100 people applied for the same spot as I did!” But I can’t yell that, and instead I inevitably shrug my shoulders and mumble something about odds and back-up plans. Of course, this is partially because exuberant praise embarrasses those of us brought up to value modesty.  However, it is also because such extreme faith often seems misplaced, refusing as it does the possibility that we might just not be as successful as we had hoped.

I don’t mean to demonize this behavior; it is natural. Harvard is a stressful place, and we all hope that by dismissing failures and extolling the virtues of future glory we can make our friends’ lives less stressful. But I wonder if we sometimes miss an important moment of growth and development by denying failure. As a senior—while my classmates are continuously (and deservingly) winning fellowships, medical school offers, and jobs at McKinsey and Co—I can’t help but feel that it might be beneficial to sit down and talk seriously about failure.

Many Harvard students have never seriously failed at anything in their life, and many feel understandably uncomfortable talking about disappointment with their own parents. Failure exposes our weakness, brings out our insecurities, and clouds our vision of the future—but it is a permanent fixture of human experience, both inevitable and perhaps invaluable to the real richness of life. By dismissing it, we risk missing its lessons and overlooking its centrality to our own self-improvement. We ought to struggle with failure, to think about what it means for our expectations and our goals. It provides an opportunity to learn a lesson about our own limitations and capabilities sooner, rather than later—at a time when opportunities to begin anew are not so difficult to come by.

This does not mean that we should stop cheering up our friends, nor does it mean that we should avoid contextualizing failure by pointing out how well situated most of us truly are, with the force of the Harvard name on our diploma and the wealth of its resources at our disposal Talking about failure can be difficult; I suspect that such discussions will always be uncomfortable. But the challenge is worth undertaking. Failure today may be the loss of a relationship, the sting of a bad grade, or the inability to find post-collegiate employment, but life often brings more weighty difficulties—infidelity, financial trouble, and death. Learning to talk about these experiences and learn from them is a process worth embarking upon.

Benjamin T. Hand ’12, a social studies concentrator, lives in Currier House.


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Protesting Perfect

Dear Harvard Students,

There’s something I wanted to let you know.

You’re doing a great job.


I mean it.

You’re doing an amazing job for getting through a semester of college. You’re doing an amazing job sticking it through. You’re doing an amazing job growing up. You’re doing an amazing job learning about life. You’re doing an amazing job being you.

I feel like we take it for granted that we’re only just coming into our twenties. We’re not really supposed to know what we want to do or who we want to be. And if we do, great! And if we don’t, there’s no such thing as “too late”. Life can bend and flex more than you think it can.

One night before finals, I broke down because I kept asking myself the question why couldn’t I be motivated to study, where did my panic go, what am I doing, where am I going, what happened to my confidence, why am I not excited for this cool class, what do I like, would I prefer hanging out with friends or being by myself…do I even know what I want? I’m not religious, but I still got on my knees in my room, crying, feeling defeated, asking for myself/someone to show me what I truly care about.

I would love to say “I got an answer”. But at the time, I didn’t. I just kept crying, releasing all the anxieties and tension that had built up for a couple weeks. Afterwards, all I knew was that I wasn’t weak, I was human. And we don’t give ourselves enough credit for having to deal with the internal pressure (we may not admit this) of having to be perfect academically, athletically, extracurricularly, socially, and/or physically.

For those who have looked at themselves in the mirror and asked: “What’s wrong with me?” I wanted to let you know: there is nothing wrong with you.

You are human. You aren’t right and you aren’t wrong. Whoever told you college would be perfect, or that you would have to be perfect to be accepted…say hi to that voice and say “There is nothing I should be. I’m trying the best I can.” And you are. That’s why I wanted to let you know you’re doing a great job.

We don’t have to be strong 100% of the time. In fact, feel free to be weak more than half the time. But make sure you’re open to someone about this, even if that someone is yourself. You don’t have to change the way you feel, but acknowledge that you are feeling this way. Because admitting in a nonjudgemental matter that you’re feeling unsure actually means that you aren’t weak. There is nothing wrong with you for not being to handle everything.

I had severe insomnia for a good chunk of 2011, and someone asked me how I finally let myself sleep. I don’t really care much about grades nor do I take on huge responsibilities in my extracurriculars, yet I still felt this unbearable pressure to do, do, do, achieve, achieve, achieve. Finally, I realized by telling myself: There is absolutely nothing you need to achieve by the time you graduate from Harvard, that I could finally just be in bed and drift off to sleep (side note – helps if you kind of let your busy mind wander towards your feet too.)

It’s easy to say “nobody’s perfect”. But it’s hard to really believe it, in your gut. We were born and bred in some fashion to believe that we need to be perfect, to keep improving, to keep striving.

So I just wanted to let you know: You can protest perfect whenever you want.

Merry Christmas Harvard

Love from a fellow student

This entry was written by a member of the Class of 2013 at Harvard College.

Want to Protest Perfect as well? Check out this movement to Protest the Perfectionism 

See other blog posts written by other Harvard community members here

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Facebook Launches Tool to Report Suicidal Behavior

(Reuters) – Facebook launched a new suicide prevention tool on Tuesday, giving users a direct link to an online chat with counselors who can help, the company said.


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Fighting Pain with Pain

When students harm themselves the marks often go unseen, but the percentage of undergraduates who have intentionally injured themselves in their lifetimes is stunning.

More than 15 percent of undergraduates nationwide have harmed themselves and 6.8 percent have done so in the past year, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health in November.

Harvard’s Director of Behavioral Health and Counseling Paul Barreira said Harvard’s rate is slightly lower than the national average, but he declined to offer a more specific figure. Barreira served as a researcher on the study.

These national statistics are reflected in the lives of three Harvard undergraduates.

Interviews with these students, who have harmed themselves during their time at Harvard—two by cutting and another by inflicting non-scarring injuries—reveal that self-harm is a real phenomenon even within the ivory tower. They say that while Harvard offers a number of ways to seek help—whether professional, student-run, or simply social—often the fear of repercussions and an intense concern for privacy leave them to cope alone.

By David Song

—-> Read more here


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Put Down the Textbook and Read This

Put Down the Textbook and Read This: A Love Letter for the College Students

I’ve been there.

Books piled up in a stack beside you. Nodding off to the glow of the computer screen. Neon strips of highlighter scraped across your forehead, leftover not from a raging highlighter party the night before but rather the all-nighter spent spooning Shakespeare term papers and mind-rattling interpretations of Samuel Beckett’s best works.

–> Read more here


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Depression Adventures

Feeling apathetic, depressed, not in the mood, immobile, tired? Check out this great storyboard made by “Hyperbole and a Half” here on their own experiences with depression. Remember though – there are many ways to cope with depression, or even “down moods”. Talk to your friends, proctors, PAFs – anyone can help. Check out our resources section on our navigation bar.




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We’re Listening

In becoming a peer counselor, one of the first things I learned was that the simple act of listening to another person is even more powerful than I had already believed. Most of us would say that we listen to people talk every day–for instance, we attend lectures, where one can hardly help but listen to a professor or TF speak. However, there is a difference between the sort of automatic listening that most of us (and even I myself) perform in lecture settings and the kind of deep, attentive listening which close friends, priests, therapists, and other sorts of confidantes provide. That is, on a base level, we must distinguish between simply hearing what someone else says and processing it on a superficial or surface level (ie, that student in my section made a comment about this reading) and delving deeply into the content of a comment and truly registering what someone says (ie, that student has mentioned being stressed or upset about this class several times in the past week). Good listening is not just about what we call in peer counseling ‘minimal attentive skills’ like tracking, making appropriate eye contact, nodding or saying encouraging things like “right” or “uh huh” (although these skills are part of good listening), it is also about picking up on nonverbal cues or noticing when someone says the same thing over and over. It is the things that people tend to repeat and reiterate that lend insight into what a person is experiencing, feeling, or thinking. Take any one of your friends, roommates, blockmates, or fellow students. I think I can say without fear of inaccuracy that in the past few days you have probably heard at least one person tell you that they are tired, that they feel overworked, that they are stressed, that they feel burdened by responsibility.
Now think about how you responded. Think about how you listened to their litany of complaints. It’s far too easy to disregard what could be more difficult or complex emotions veiled in a common vernacular. Only by intense listening can you discern whether or not a friend is stressed over their 20-page paper on Monday or if s/he is stressed because s/he is worried about a relationship with a friend, troubles at home, etc. If we could all take the time to listen to what people are telling us, to hear their words and then be able to signify to them that we have heard what they said, we could be so much more helpful to ourselves at to our peers.
One of the most important things I have learned in my life is that sometimes all someone needs is a listening ear, but sometimes the need is more complex or more difficult. And we will never be able to make that distinction unless we truly listen to what other people are trying to tell us.

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Beating It versus Managing It

As a student who has sought to achieve and maintain mental wellbeing, I have often vacillated between two approaches: Beating It or Managing It (“It” being depression, in my case).

For most of the past six years, I have taken the former approach.  My goal has been to beat depression and move on with my life.  Recently, however, I have begun taking the latter approach.  Instead of considering myself in a personal battle to be won and depression an evil to be defeated, I am focusing instead on managing mental wellbeing in much the same way as one might manage his or her physical wellbeing.  And, of course, mental and physical wellbeing are inextricably interrelated.

I find the ‘Managing It’ approach, for me, to be much more constructive and realistic.  In the ‘Beating It’ approach, a relapse can mean black-or-white failure.  In the ‘Managing It’ approach, a brief relapse can mean opportunity for renewal, treatment, and therapeutic refocusing.

Seth Riddley is a History and Science concentrator in Mather House.  He can be reached at

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