Time Alone to Think: A Painful Activity?

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Spending time alone with thoughts can be painful or helpful. Image by mensatic.

Spending time alone with thoughts can be painful or helpful. Image by mensatic.

Thinking and being engaged with what you’re doing can prevent all kinds of problems, but according to a new study, most people don’t spend much time consciously processing their situation.

What do people feel about the experience of about spending time alone with their thoughts?

Wilson on the Disengaged Mind

It appears many people avoid spending time thinking. According to Dr. Timothy Wilson’s analysis of  the 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on time use, over 80% of people reported spending “no time whatsoever thinking or relaxing” in a twenty-four hour period.

Dr. Wilson and his team from the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted eleven small studies of people spending time alone without any distractions. While the time spent alone was modest, 6 to 15 minutes, 89% reported their minds wandered.  Overall, “49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.”

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Wilson notes the data points to individual differences in the ability to direct daydreaming as measured by the Short Imaginal Process Inventory’s Positive Constructive Daydreaming subscale.

Dr. Wilson provided Decoded Science with examples of questions such as the “Positive Constructive Daydreaming subscale item: “My daydreams often leave me with a warm, happy feeling” versus “I tend to be easily bored” on the Poor Attentional Control subscale.

Since the authors found “participants who were high in agreeableness enjoyed themselves more than did participants who were low in agreeableness” – being able to tolerate being alone appears to be related to a personality trait.  However Dr. Wilson stated in his interview “but we have not yet found the personality trait that predicts it well.”

Surprisingly, in one pilot study, some respondents, overwhelmingly male participants, found disengagement so unsettling they preferred self-administering mild electric shocks to sitting alone without any distractions!

The researchers conclude, “it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques...[w]ithout such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

Meditation Research

Meditation provides subjective wellbeing. Image by Andulusia.

Meditation provides subjective wellbeing. Image by Andalusia.

Dr. Wilson explains to Decoded Science, “There is a large and growing literature on the benefits of meditation. Several studies have found that it increases subjective well-being.”

A review of meditation by Madhav Goyal, MD of John Hopkins University and colleagues found: “Meditation programs, in particular mindfulness programs, reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health as well as stress-related behavioral outcomes.

In other words, after looking at the results of key studies, researchers determined that mindfulness meditation alleviated depression, pain, and anxiety, but  were not able to ascertain whether meditation increased more positive emotions or moods.

The government tasks the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality with determining what outcomes are worth further funding, discovering more about meditation is a topic worth more investigation.

Mindfulness Meditation

Helpguide summarizes a 2013 report by Harvard Health Publications, which supports the argument that mindfulness meditation increases positive well-being. Helpguide lists three key points:

  • Practicing mindfulness improves both mental and physical health.
  • Mindfulness involves both concentration (a form of meditation) and acceptance. 
  • It takes practice to become comfortable with mindfulness techniques. If one method doesn’t work for you, try another.

To begin, the site suggests beginners sit in a straight backed chair and aim for twenty minutes of meditation, focusing on their breath.

Practice Mindfulness For a More Positive Outlook

If Wilson’s research is any indication, teaching yourself to sit quietly without distraction, will take practice. The benefits of mindfulness, however, such as experiencing less pain, stress, anxiety and depression, are worth learning to sit alone with your thoughts.

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