Most of us just can’t stand to be alone with our own thoughts, according to a new psychological investigation.
We need to be connected to the world.
A study, published in the journal Science, found that most would rather be doing something than just doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts.
Psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that people from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream.
“Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” Wilson said.
Many of the first studies involved college students, most of whom reported that this thinking period wasn’t very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate.
So Wilson conducted another study with people from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.
“That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
He does not necessarily attribute this to the fast pace of modern society or the prevalence of readily available electronic devices such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people’s desire to always have something to do.
In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world and when they do they do not particularly enjoy it.
Based on these surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socialising or reading, and actually spent little or no time relaxing or thinking.
During several of Wilson’s experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no mobile phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes entertaining themselves with their thoughts.
Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience.
Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.
Everyone enjoys daydreaming at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are more difficult to do on command.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” he said. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”
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