Marilyn Monroe once said, “I restore myself when I’m alone.” Surrounded by fans and paparazzi, the actress probably didn’t have lots of opportunities to enjoy her own solitude, but many of us do; we just don’t take advantage of it.
The problem is that we consistently underestimate how much pleasure we can get by spending time alone and just enjoying our own thoughts, a new Japanese study finds.
Instead, we choose to check our electronic devices or occupy ourselves with other distractions. In fact, worldwide, the average person spends a total of 6 hours and 57 minutes looking at a screen each day for internet-connected activities. The majority of this time (3 hours and 43 minutes) is spent on mobile devices.
In order to delve into our expectations around contemplation, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan conducted a series of six experiments on over 250 participants. They compared how much the participants thought they would enjoy sitting around and thinking, as opposed to how they felt when they were actually doing it.
Not allowing ourselves time to consider our own thoughts means we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
For example, in one experiment the researchers asked people to predict how much they would enjoy being alone with their own thoughts for 20 minutes. During this period, they were not permitted to engage in distracting activities including reading, strolling about or checking their smartphones. At the end of the period, they were asked how much they enjoyed their quiet time.
The researchers found that folks enjoyed time with their own thoughts more than they had predicted. This was also true for several modifications of the experiment including whether participants were sitting in a dark area or a bare conference room, or whether their thinking time was for twenty or only three minutes.
“Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” the study’s lead author, Aya Hatano of Kyoto University, said in a press statement. “Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be. That could explain why people prefer keeping themselves busy with devices and other distractions, rather than taking a moment for reflection and imagination in daily life.”
To further prove just that, the researchers conducted another experiment. They compared one group’s expectations of how much they would enjoy thinking with the other group’s expectations of how much they would enjoy checking news over the internet.
Once more, people underestimated how much they would enjoy contemplation. Even though the thinking group predicted they would enjoy their assignment much less, in reality both groups reported similar levels of pleasure.
People have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be.
These days it’s really easy to just “kill time.” Whether it’s riding on public transportation, waiting on line or even going for a walk, we tend to think that our experience will be enhanced if we’re kept busy. “However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to engage yourself without relying on such stimulation,” said the study’s co-author, Kou Murayama, of the University of Tubingen in Germany.
Past studies have shown the benefits of letting our minds wander — from creatively solving work problems or relationship issues — to contemplating the deeper meaning of life, Murayama says, adding, “By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits.” Not allowing ourselves time to consider our own thoughts means we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
But why do we underestimate and avoid the pleasure and perks of spending time in our own minds?
Well, that’s something to think about.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.