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Finding Time to Think Is More Enjoyable Than Expected, Study Says

It’s important to let your mind wander, especially in busy modern life.

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Putting your emotions aside to get things done doesn’t mean the feelings necessarily go away. But sitting alone with your thoughts later can give you time to process and move on.Getty Images

Most people still underestimate just how much they would enjoy simply sitting alone with their thoughts, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. While our modern instincts may be to use our devices constantly, that behavior can put us at risk of information overload and decision fatigue.

Previous research has suggested that intentionally letting your mind wander has real-world benefits. A study published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice in 2019 found it helped people process difficult emotions; other research has found links with problem solving and even enhanced creativity.

Despite these rewards, “individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be,” explained Kou Murayama, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, and one of the study authors, in an APA press release.

Undistracted Thought Was Consistently More Enjoyable Than Predicted

According to the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers discovered that people had difficulty accurately predicting how much they would enjoy thinking without engaging in outside distractions such as reading, using a smartphone, or walking around. All 259 participants were college students in the United Kingdom and Japan who consistently rated their experience as significantly more enjoyable than they predicted across six distinct experiments.

Participants were asked to sit alone for 3 or 20 minutes in the study. In another variation, trial subjects were seated in an empty conference room or a dark tented area without much to look at. Each time, participants enjoyed being alone with their thoughts more than they initially predicted.

In another experiment, researchers discovered that, compared with participants asked to check the news on the internet, subjects asked to think without outside distractions reported similar levels of enjoyment — even though they expected beforehand they’d like it much less.

While the study found that participants consistently predicted levels of enjoyment below their actual results (3 to 4 on average out of a rating of 7), thinking was never rated as “extremely enjoyable,” said Dr. Murayama.

“Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact, some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking,” he explained in the statement.

Time Alone With Your Thoughts Could Be Beneficial

Taylor N. Day, PhD, a clinical psychologist and a mental wellness and alignment coach, says the APA study findings are significant because they’re key indicators that, although not always “extremely enjoyable,” reflection has a positive effect on our feelings of well-being. “There’s so much stimulus in our world right now that we almost expect that stimulus to be there. We as a culture crave being busy and active and having something to do, so we forget that sometimes the absence of something to do can create a lot of joy.”

The use of meditation has increased threefold in the United States, from 4.1 percent of adults in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s still a modest percentage of the population, though.

Dr. Day hopes this study will bring more awareness to our need to log off, spend time with our thoughts, and let go of our collective fear of boredom.

“I think we need to start and end our day without [distractions]. It allows us to clear the clutter in our minds,” Day says. “So often, people are overwhelmed by their thoughts and avoid them by hopping into action, but that doesn’t fix the problem.”

Thinking About Thinking Can Be Challenging for Some

If “meditation” sounds too formal, just know that you don’t have to do anything special to benefit from allowing your mind to wander.

Day recommends becoming aware of the types of thoughts you’re having, to recognize whether you’re susceptible to things like rumination or catastrophizing — thinking something is worse than it is. She says you can learn to restructure these thoughts or work through feelings in talk therapy, but as a first and ongoing practice, taking the time to think without outside distractions is vital to combat the stresses of everyday life.

The research team responsible for the study suggests that more research is still necessary to better understand what types of thinking are more enjoyable and might motivate individuals. In addition, researchers believe the study needs to be carried out with more diverse groups of participants to better understand the benefits of self-reflection.