Sit with your thoughts, not your devices

A new study shows that being left with your thoughts can be a lot more rewarding than you might think.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Image: Shutterstock / marvent

Getting distracted has never been easier than it is today. At our fingertips, we have access to every single form of entertainment you can think of. Whether you want to scroll aimlessly through social media, stream your favorite show or do some virtual window shopping, picking up your device is extremely tempting. A recent American Psychological Association study, however, shows that people may be underestimating how enjoyable spending time alone with their thoughts and free from distractions can be. 

In the study, the researchers ran a series of six experiments in which the 259 participants had to first predict how enjoyable they thought the experience of being left alone with their thoughts would be. Their predictions were then compared to how much the participants actually enjoyed undistracted thinking. 

One of the experiments had the participants sit without any distractions for 20 minutes. They weren't allowed to look at their phones, walk or read. The participants predicted how enjoyable the activity would be before beginning and then checked back in either midway through the session or after.

The results showed that regardless of whether the participants sat in a bare conference room or in a small, dark tented area with no visual stimulation, they enjoyed the thinking time a lot more than they expected to. 

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"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," said study lead author Aya Hatano, PhD, of Kyoto University in Japan. 

Previous research shows thinking can lead to many benefits, such as problem solving, enhancing creativity and even helping people find meaning in life. "By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits," said study co-author Kou Murayama, PhD, of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Despite finding thinking more enjoyable than expected, the participants still didn't rate it as a very enjoyable task with enjoyment levels, on average, being around three to four on a seven-point scale. Murayama says future research should explore what thinking is enjoyable, since not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding. 

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