Most Can’t Stand to Be Alone With Their Thoughts–Can You?

What’s so bad about having no distractions?

Posted Jul 07, 2014

How do you feel about being alone with your own thoughts? Does it sound good to you? It does to me.

Maybe I’m framing that question the wrong way, because in a just-published series of studies, most people hated it. There were numerous variations in the studies, but all included a quite simple situation: Participants were asked to turn off all of their devices, put aside all their stuff (including non-electronic things like pens and papers and books), and just sit with their own thoughts for somewhere between 6 and 15 minutes.

The majority of participants rated the task as difficult and unpleasant. They disliked it whether they did it in a psychology lab or in their own homes. Of those who participated from home, about a third said they cheated by doing things like turning on some music or checking their phones – and those are just the ones who admitted it.

In the flashiest study – the one that’s getting the most media attention – participants were asked how they would feel about getting a mild electric shock. Of those who said they would pay not to have to experience that, a good number of them went ahead and shocked themselves when left in a room with nothing to do but attend to their own thoughts. (Specifically, 67% of the men and 25% of the women did so.)

Maybe I should rephrase my initial question this way: Just how tethered are you not just to your devices but to every other imaginable distraction, such as watching TV or listening to music or reading or doodling? Do I still stand by my initial reaction that this sort of experience sounds just fine? Do you?

Since reading about the research (described by Matthew Hutson – previously a Psych Today editor – at the Atlantic; the original article is behind a paywall), I’ve been thinking of times when I’m happily lost in my own thoughts. The situations that first came to mind don’t really qualify in the strictest sense, because in each, I’m doing something else at the same time. Here they are:

  • When I’m driving, but not when traffic slows to a crawl. (So maybe what’s important is choice or a sense of control; it is annoying to be told what to do or to be forced into it by the situation.)
  • When I’m cooking.
  • When I’m walking or hiking. (I don’t like listening to music while I’m out on the trails; it is all about the stimulation of the exercise, the beauty of the settings, and the engagement with my own thoughts.)
  • (I’m not a gardener or a knitter or – perhaps most relevant – one who meditates, but I bet people who do engage in those activities enjoy their own thoughts.)
  • During boring lectures, I contentedly retreat into my own thoughts for longer periods of time than I want to admit.
  • When I’m working (usually writing), I often catch myself looking away from computer screen, staring out the window, and just thinking.
  • When I’m traveling by plane, train, or bus. I’m almost always reading but I enjoy taking time to just look out the window and think. That suddenly becomes less enjoyable when, for example, there’s an announcement that the flight has been delayed and we’ll be sitting on the runway for another half hour. (Again, that suggests the possibility that choice or control may be important.)
  • Getting my hair cut. My usual hair stylist is a great conversationalist, but occasionally he is not available and the substitute is much less chatty. When that happens, I retreat into my own thoughts and feel totally contented in doing so.

So are there any times when I really do just sit with my own thoughts with no other distractions whatsoever? So far, I’ve come up with two:

  • There are times when I’m too tired to work or even read or watch TV, but I’m nowhere near ready to go to sleep. I just need a break. During those times, I like to sit or lounge somewhere comfortable, maybe even close my eyes, and just think.
  • Just after my father died (many years ago), there were stretches of time when I did nothing but sit on the couch and stare into space. I’m not sure I did all that much thinking, though, and I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant.

It would be useful to conduct diary studies in which people record their daily activities, to see who really does spend time alone with their thoughts.

Maybe we should also start a list of experiences that are less fun than being alone with nothing but your own thoughts. I nominate: getting stuck in a boring group conversation.

In the supplementary materials, the authors list a whole set of factors such demographic characteristics and personality types that they explored, to see whether certain kinds of people enjoy being alone with their thoughts more than others. There were a few significant findings here and there – for example, agreeable people tend to enjoy their own thoughts more – but overall the results were underwhelming.

What struck me about their list was what was missing. My guess is that single people – especially those who are single at heart, and who live alone because they want to, are less allergic to their own thoughts than others. Some, I imagine, actually enjoy them. (Maybe the same is true of only children.) Single people and people who live alone, though, are rarely on the radar of academic psychologists.

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