It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’d like to be having sweet dreams but instead you’re awake and churning an imponderable question. One to which the answer seems remote and unsolvable but that, nonetheless, won’t let your thoughts switch off and your mind rest.

What is that question likely to be? We asked people to tell us their 3 a.m. thoughts and compiled a list of the most common ones. The top five were as follows:

  1. What do I want?
  2. Am I doing the right thing?
  3. What do other people think of me?
  4. Where am I going in my life?
  5. Why do I act the way I do?’

Initially we analysed over 1094 answers from people, with a variety of backgrounds and ages, who had been asked simply to email us the ‘big’ question(s) that kept them awake at night.

When we categorised the responses the most common  – accounting for 36.2% -  were along the lines of  ‘What do I want?’ What am I doing with my life?’ or ‘Am I happy?’.  People spent far less time, it appeared, worrying ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Is there life after death?’, ‘Is world peace possible?’, ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘What happens when I die?’

We were intrigued by these results and so Professor Karen Pine and I set about  exploring this more systematically. Based on all the responses from the internet survey we developed a psychometrically robust Life Questions Measure. This comprised 24 questions, scored on a 5-point scale in terms of how often people  thought about each of the questions:

5 = a few times a day

4 = A few times a week

3 = A few times a month

2 = A few times each year

1 = Never

In terms of the most frequently asked ‘Big Question’ the top of the list was ‘What do I want? Nineteen per cent of people asked themselves this ‘a few times a day’  with a further 26% asking it ‘a few times a week’. 

The other top responses were:

  • ‘Am I doing the right thing? (15% ‘a few times a day’/28% ‘a few times a week’)
  • ‘What do other people think of me?’ (14%/27%)
  • ‘Where am I going in my life?’ (8%/34%)
  • ‘Why do I act the way I do?’ (15%/23%)
  • ‘Have I made the right choices?’ (9%/29%)
  • ‘Am I happy?’ (9%/24%).

What are the questions you ask yourself? Are they like the ones above, or more philosophical, practical perhaps or existential?

For our respondents those ‘bigger’ issues didn’t keep people awake very much. For example, very few pondered the existence of God (3.9%), or worried about love (1.6%), or the state of the world (1%). Few were troubled by their past actions or life (only 3.6%). More thought about issues of destiny and the after-life (8.8%), their future selves (11.9%) and the meaning of life (22.5%). 

But, in general,  it seems people (men and women alike) ask themselves questions that ONLY THEY can answer. The Big Question for example, ‘What do I want?’, is unlikely to be answered by someone else.

In general, the younger people asked themselves more questions more often than older people. There were statistically significant differences in the mean scores for 14 of the 24 questions, including such areas as ‘Is there life after death?’ and ‘Is there a God?’, with a trend in the same direction for all the other 10 areas.  And single people, compared to those in a relationship, were more questioning about two areas – they were more likely to ask themselves ‘Am I  happy?’, or ‘Why have I done what I have?’.

We also looked at the relationship between people asking themselves the Big Questions and their well-being (here measured by scales for happiness, anxiety and depression). In general, the more unhappy people were, or the more depressed or anxious they were, the more often they questioned themselves and the higher their score on the Life Questions Measure.  

What does this tell us about what’s on people’s minds?  In a previous Do Something Different blog I have talked about coherence. To my view when people are incoherent– when their reflecting selves are out of kilter with their experiencing selves (what they do) - they are more likely to have troubled thoughts. Since incoherent people tend to do things that are at odds with their core self values, these troubling questions are more likely to bubble up into consciousness. When behaviours and thoughts lag behind the need to change, or are inappropriate to the demands of life, this will give rise to Big Questions.

Do Something Different, as a technique to break bad behavioural and thinking habits, will help reduce the negative 3 a.m. thoughts. Since we have also shown consistently that the technique helps to reduce depression and anxiety it may also promise a more peaceful night’s sleep.

About the Author

Ben C. Fletcher, Ph.D.

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a professor of psychology, a behavior change expert, and the author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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