Most people don’t do well sitting alone with their thoughts, even for just a few minutes. And some prefer negative experiences to being inside their own heads.
If you could have dinner alone with any person in the world, it would probably not be yourself. In fact, people will do almost anything to avoid spending even a few minutes listening to their own inner monologues.
That’s what social psychology researchers discovered during a series of experiments focused on understanding how well we put up with our own thoughts once the usual distractions are stripped away.
“We originally started investigating the topic because the question of whether or not we are able to deliberately keep ourselves entertained with only our thoughts seemed like a basic, fundamental question that hadn’t received a lot of attention,” study co-author David Reinhard, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, told Healthline.
Previous research has shown that people tend to be happier when they are focused on the task at hand—such as reading a book, having sex, or studying—rather than letting their minds wander at the same time.
But what happens when you take away those external activities, leaving only the wandering mind? According to the researchers, whose work was published this week in Science, we get very uncomfortable very quickly.
In six experiments in the laboratory, researchers asked more than 400 college students to sit alone in a room without their usual worldly distractions, instructing them to entertain themselves with only their thoughts as best as they could.
After spending only six to fifteen minutes alone with their thoughts, many students admitted that the experience was not enjoyable. They also reported that they had difficulty concentrating and that their minds tended to wander.
And it gets worse. In a similar experiment, 42 people were given the option of sitting quietly for fifteen minutes with no distractions or giving themselves an electric shock. More than two-thirds of the men, and one quarter of the women, chose shocks over quality me-time. And these were people who told researchers beforehand that they would be willing to pay to avoid the shocks.
Rather than leave it at that, the researchers conducted several more experiments to identify possible ways to help people learn to get along with their restless minds.
“We tried a lot of different kinds of interventions…to try to help people enjoy it,” said Reinhard, “but surprisingly none of those seemed to increase people’s enjoyment.”
This included letting participants do the experiment at home. Even in a familiar environment, the students enjoyed it less and found it harder to concentrate, compared to the results in the lab. Thirty-two percent admitted that they cheated by doing something else at the same time—such as listening to music or using their cell phone—or getting out of their chair.
The researchers also directed the students’ wayward thoughts by giving them something play with.
“We tried a variety of different instructions,” said Reinhard, “giving various topics that people said would be enjoyable to think about (such as being on vacation, having superpowers); suggestions for how they should try to control (or not control) their thoughts; as well as giving them an object to fiddle with.”
While people preferred having an external activity over being alone with their thoughts, deciding what to think about ahead of time didn’t make the experience more enjoyable.
Technology is often blamed for our restlessness and inability to sit still, but this could be a two-way street.
“It’s hard to say what is causing what,” said Reinhard, “but it’s possible that our obsession with technology could be a consequence and a symptom.”
We may gravitate toward smartphones, television, and the Internet to avoid the awkwardness of being alone with our thoughts. On the other hand, spending so much time shooting at angry birds and texting our friends could deprive us of opportunities to practice entertaining ourselves with plans and daydreams.
More research is needed to better understand why people dislike being along with their thoughts, but there may already be a way to learn to get along with ourselves.
Meditation and similar techniques, which involve sitting still and focusing on your breathing or an object, could help us learn to enjoy spending time alone. Researchers found a glimpse of the power of meditation in their experiments.
“We found a very small, but significant, correlation between people’s experience with meditation and their enjoyment of our ‘thinking period,’” said Reinhard, “which suggests people with more meditation experience can enjoy this more.”