Get lost in your thoughts without getting lost on the internet

Getting distracted has never been easier than it is today. At our fingertips, we have access to every form of entertainment imaginable. Whether you want to aimlessly browse social media, stream your favorite show, or do some virtual “window shopping,” it’s extremely tempting to grab your smartphone. However, a recent study by the American Psychological Association shows that we may underestimate the pleasure of spending time alone with our thoughts, and without distractions.

In this study, the researchers conducted a series of six experiments, in which the 259 participants first had to predict how pleasant they thought the experience of being left alone with their thoughts would be. Their predictions were then compared to the extent to which the participants actually enjoyed thinking without being distracted.

In one of the experiments, participants had to sit without any distractions for 20 minutes. They weren’t allowed to look at their phones, walk or read. Participants predicted how enjoyable the activity would be before they started, then checked mid-session or after.

The benefits of disconnecting

Whether participants were seated in a bare-bones conference room or in a darkened area with no visual stimulation, the study showed that they enjoyed the brainstorming time far more than expected.

“Our research suggests that people struggle to appreciate how interesting reflection can be. This could explain why people prefer to keep themselves busy with devices and other distractions, rather than taking a moment to think and let their imaginations run wild in everyday life,” notes the study’s lead author, Aya Hatano, from Kyoto University in Japan.

Previous research shows that reflection can provide many benefits, such as problem solving, improving creativity, and even helping to find meaning in life. “By actively avoiding thoughtful activities, people can miss out on these important benefits,” adds study co-author Kou Murayama, PhD, of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Thinking turned out to be more pleasant than expected, in the eyes of the participants in this study, but the level of pleasure remained on average between three and four on a seven-point scale. According to Kou Murayama, future research should focus on what makes thinking enjoyable, because not all thinking is inherently rewarding.


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