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Mental Health

Science says there are big benefits to a little bit of quiet time alone

People consistently undervalue how enjoyable it is to sit and think without anything to distract them, scientists say.

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By Stephen Beech via SWNS

The positive well-being benefits of switching off the laptop and spending a few minutes alone with your own thoughts are widely underestimated, according to a new study.

People consistently undervalue how enjoyable it is to sit and think without anything to distract them, scientists say.

The findings of a series of experiments involving more than 250 British and Japanese students to measure the enjoyment of being alone with one's own thoughts were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Study lead author Doctor Aya Hatano, of Kyoto University in Japan, said: “Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking.

“Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be.

"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.”

In a series of six experiments involving 259 British and Japanese students, the researchers compared their predictions of how much they would enjoy simply sitting and thinking with their actual experience of doing so.

In the first experiment, they asked people to predict how much they would enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes, without being allowed to do anything distracting such as reading, walking around or looking at a smartphone. The participants reported how much they had enjoyed it afterward.

The researchers found that people enjoyed spending time with their thoughts "significantly more" than they had predicted.

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The findings held true across variations of the experiment in which participants sat in a bare conference room or in a small, dark tented area with no visual stimulation; variations in which the thinking period lasted for three minutes or for 20 minutes; and one variation in which the researchers asked people to report on their enjoyment midway through the task instead of after it was over.

Dr. Hatano said: "In every case, participants enjoyed thinking more than they had expected to."

In another experiment, the researchers compared one group of participants’ predictions of how much they would enjoy thinking with another group’s predictions of how much they would enjoy checking the news on the internet.

The research team again found that people underestimated their enjoyment of thinking. The thinking group expected to enjoy the task significantly less than the news-checking group, but afterward, the two groups reported similar enjoyment levels.

The results are particularly important in the modern era of information overload and constant access to distractions, according to study co-author Doctor Kou Murayama, of the University of Tübingen, Germany.

He said: “It’s now extremely easy to ‘kill' time.

"On the bus on your way to work, you can check your phone rather than immerse yourself in your internal free-floating thinking, because you predict thinking will be boring.

“However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation.”

The researchers say that missed opportunity comes at a cost because previous studies have shown that spending time letting your mind wander has some benefits.

Dr. Murayama believes it can help people solve problems, enhance their creativity and even help them find meaning in life.

He said: “By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits."

Dr. Murayama pointed out that the participants did not rate thinking as an extremely enjoyable task, but simply as more enjoyable than they thought it would be.

On average, participants’ enjoyment level was around three to four on a seven-point scale.

Dr. Murayama. says future research should delve into which types of thinking are most enjoyable and motivating.

He added: “Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking."

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