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Sitting alone with your thoughts is highly underestimated

The joy of our diving into our own thoughts without distractions is highly underestimated, according to a new study from the American Psychological Association. The experts found that people enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts much more than they would expect. 

“Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” said study lead author Aya Hatano of Kyoto University in Japan.

“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.”

In a series of six experiments with 259 participants, the researchers compared people’s predictions of how much they would enjoy simply sitting and thinking with their actual experience of doing so. 

The first expirament asked people to predict how much they would enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes and without distractions such as reading, walking or looking at their phones. Afterward, the participants reported how much they had enjoyed it.

In every case, participants enjoyed thinking more than they had anticipated. This held true in other expiraments where participants sat in a bare conference room or in a small, dark area with no visual stimulation. 

In another experiment, the researchers compared one group of participants’ predictions of how much they would enjoy thinking with another group’s predictions of how much they would enjoy checking the news on the internet. 

The thinking group was expected to enjoy the task significantly less than the news-checking group, but afterward, the two groups reported similar enjoyment levels. The results are an important reminder in the modern era of information overload.

“It’s now extremely easy to ‘kill time.’ On the bus on your way to work, you can check your phone rather than immerse yourself in your internal free-floating thinking, because you predict thinking will be boring,” said study co-author Kou Murayama of the University of Tübingen.

“However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation.” 

Previous studies have shown that letting your mind wander has benefits such as problem solving, enhanced creativity, and can even help people find meaning in life. 

“By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits,” said Murayama. He suggests that future research should delve into the types of thinking that are most enjoyable and motivating, “Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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