You might enjoy your own company more than you think
A new study shows humans actually like being alone with their thoughts — and absolutely nothing else.
These days, doing nothing is rare. Here in the U.S. especially, we’re constantly striving to produce and succeed. Even when we’re taking “breaks,” we’re still doing something — watching TV, scrolling through Instagram, cleaning, listening to podcasts, reading books — if not multiple things at once. Meanwhile, given that the mindfulness has been successfully hijacked by capitalism, white-washed, and perverted into a billion-dollar industry, many of us are questioning what we’ve bought into and if it’s worth it to keep up the effort. We simultaneously feel guilty for avoiding our meditation apps and also a bit rebellious — like our refusal to get quiet is an act of resistance. Well, it turns out we may be overthinking something that humans actually enjoy naturally — thinking. A new study suggests that most people likely underestimate how much they enjoy letting their minds wander.
For the study, which was published this morning in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers conducted a series of six experiments using 259 participants, all of whom were college students in Japan or the U.K. The experiments were designed to compare how much participants predicted they would enjoy spending time sitting quietly — without their phones — to how much they actually enjoyed that time.
For the first experiment, researchers asked each individual to rate how much they thought they would enjoy spending 20 minutes alone, doing nothing but thinking, on a scale of one to seven. In some instances, participants were asked to sit in a generic conference room; in others, they were seated in a darkly lit tent with no visual stimulation. They weren’t allowed to read, walk, or do basically anything else. Sounds daunting, no? Well, participants across the board reported enjoying their device-free quiet time — no matter the surroundings — more than they anticipated, according to the study.
It also didn’t seem to matter when researchers checked in with the participant. Whether the students were asked to report on their enjoyment halfway through or at the end of the experiment, the result was the same. Researchers also experimented with different lengths of quiet time, from three to 20 minutes, with the same results. Basically, no matter where the participants were or how long they were asked to spend time alone with themselves, they enjoyed it more than expected.
To be clear, no one seemed to find their quiet time to be a blast. Most participants rated their experiences alone between three and four on the one-to-seven scale. Even so, that’s pretty telling — especially considering how many of us feel the need to be constantly busy or entertained. “Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” Aya Hatano, a researcher at Kyoto University in Japan and lead author on the study, said in a news release published by EurekAlert.
The bottom line: We can stay engaged with nothing but the inside of our own brains, despite the fact that we tend to believe the opposite. And therein lies the conundrum: While this study suggests that we like having time alone to let our minds wander, we don’t think we’ll like it — and thus, we avoid it. “Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be,” Hatano said in the release. “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.”
This research contributes to a growing body of research about letting our minds wander — which studies have shown is great for boosting creativity and making smarter decisions. So the next time you’re tempted to complain that you can’t handle how boring life is without constant external stimulation, maybe try putting your phone down long enough to find out if that’s actually true. You may like your own company more than you think.