Scrolling through your phone or flipping through Netflix options may seem like a great way to entertain yourself, but new research suggests that we underestimate how enjoyable sitting with our thoughts can be.
The study, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, recommends putting down devices and letting the mind wander.
“Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” says lead author Aya Hatano of Kyoto University in Japan in a press release. “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.”
Researchers ran six experiments with 259 participants, asking them to predict how much they would enjoy sitting and thinking, then compared it to how they actually felt. The six scenarios included sitting in a conference room or a dark tent for a variation of time. During the first experiment, participants predicted how much they thought they would enjoy sitting with their thoughts for 20 minutes. After the time passed, they rated how much they enjoyed it.
The study revealed that people enjoyed sitting without distractions like their phones more than they thought they would. One experiment compared participants’ predictions with a group that had to check the news on the internet. Results were similar. More people enjoyed the time to sit and think.
These results are significant, given the modern era of overstimulation and information overload, says co-author Kou Murayama, Ph.D., of the University of Tübingen in Germany.
“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,” he says in a press release. “However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation.”
Letting your mind wander can have mental health benefits such as problem-solving and creative thinking.
“By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits,” Murayama says in a press release.
The authors want to note that while participants were happier with letting their minds wander than predicted, that didn’t mean they found the experience overly enjoyable. On a scale of one to seven, many participants rated thinking at a three or four, which was still higher than researchers thought they would.
“Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact, some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking,” says Murayama in a press release.
Future studies will ask why people underestimate thinking and will conduct a more diverse group of participants. For this study, participants were college students from Japan and the U.K.