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.
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.
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.