A shocking lack of Zen

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Biology / Health

When was the last time you were alone with your thoughts for more than a moment or two? Did you enjoy the peace and quiet? Or did you desperately seek distraction? New research suggests many of us will go to great lengths to avoid simply having to think to ourselves.

Can you entertain yourself?

It sounds like a very simple exercise. All you need to do is sit alone in an empty room for six to fifteen minutes. You can’t have your phone, or anything to read or write with. Other than that the only rules are that you have to stay awake and stay in your chair. Easy, right?

Psychologists from the University of Virginia and Harvard did this exercise multiple times, first with University students and later with a variety of people spanning ages 18–77 years of age and found essentially the same thing.

People don’t like doing nothing

More than half of the study participants rated the experience as somewhat or more than somewhat difficult. Nearly half admitted to not enjoying the experience much. They found the exercise far less enjoyable than reading magazines, doing crosswords or listening to music.

Results for two people had to be dumped from the study because in one case the researcher left a pen in the lab by mistake and the person used it to write a to-do list. Another time an instruction sheet was left in the room and the study participant used it to practice origami. I would have expected paper planes!

How about at home?

The researchers allowed people to repeat the experiment at home and about a third admitted they cheated and either listened to music or used their phone.

The next step was to give people specific topics to think about, like planning a holiday. But even that didn’t help people to enjoy the experience any more.

Why do we find it so difficult to just do nothing? Image credit:

Why do we find it so difficult to just do nothing? Image credit: Ed Yourdon via Flickr.

We all hate doing nothing

All of these studies suggest that people would rather be doing something rather than nothing. The people who took part in this research didn’t like spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think or daydream.

So it seems we are desperate for distractions.

Is pain better than no distraction?

The next question: would people prefer an activity that’s not very nice over no activity at all? Was the experience of time with no external distractions so bad that people would avoid it by inflicting pain on themselves? You’ve already guessed the answer. For some people, yes.

At the start of the next study, participants were given a mild electric shock. When asked if the shock was bad enough that they would be willing to pay to avoid being shocked again, three-quarters said yes.

But when those people were left alone in a room for 15 minutes without distraction, 67% of men and 25% of women gave themselves electric shocks as a distraction from simply being alone with their thoughts. On average people gave themselves one to two shocks, but one man pressed the button 190 times!

Participants simply said they preferred an electric shock over boredom.

Why is it so hard to go without distraction?

The psychologists said they set up this study expecting people to find it easy to amuse themselves. After all, we have big brains full of memories and the ability to reflect on the past, plan for the future and create imaginary worlds. But that clearly wasn’t that case.

I think [our] mind is built to engage in the world. So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do. I suppose it’s kind of circular. We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions. But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia

Can we lay the blame firmly at the feet of social media? Probably not. Study participants who used social media less often were no better at daydreaming. In fact enjoyment of time alone wasn’t related to social media or smart phone use, or age.

Interestingly Wilson and colleagues did find a small correlation between meditation experience and the ability to be happily alone with thoughts. Time to practice your lotus pose? Ommmm…

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