Have you ever considered the option of sitting somewhere alone and immersing yourself in thoughts to feel good? You have probably not, maybe because it sounds rather illogical.
However, new research by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that there is a lot to gain from letting the mind wander than many people realize. Researchers found that this activity can make those who engage in it happy.
Findings from the study suggest people tend to engage less in thinking – despite having a remarkable ability to do so – because they have no idea of what they can get from it.
“Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” said Aya Hatano, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. “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 say the results are important, in particular, in modern times when people have many things to distract themselves with.
The study appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Quest for distraction
A typical person is always looking for some distractions when they lack nothing else to do with their time. As a result, many people turn to their devices as those usually offer more than enough to keep them from being immersed in their thoughts.
“It’s now extremely easy to ‘kill time,’” said study co-author Kou Murayama, Ph.D. “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.”
The professor of psychology said such a prediction amounts to a missed opportunity if it is inaccurate.
It is a lost opportunity because earlier research showed that there are benefits to letting the mind wander. Researchers say just sitting to think can boost creativity and improve problem-solving ability. The activity can also help people to find meaning in their lives.
Happiness in your thoughts
The team in this study carried out a series of experiments involving participants who did not deem thinking as a very enjoyable activity. Murayama said these participants, numbering 259, rated the enjoyment level an average of 3-4 on a scale of 7.
Researchers asked the participants how much enjoyment they would get from sitting and thinking without another activity to distract them in the first experiment. The subjects then reported how well they actually enjoyed the task afterward.
What the team found was that the participants greatly enjoyed thinking more than they earlier thought they would. This finding remained true for variations of the original experiment, including one lasting three minutes and another in which enjoyment reporting was done halfway through.
The scientists further compared the predictions of a group of how greatly they would enjoy thinking with those of another group of the extent of enjoyment they hope to get from checking the news online. The two groups surprisingly reported similar levels of happiness afterward despite the thinking group originally expecting less enjoyment.
Overall, these findings show that sitting alone with one’s thoughts is commonly underestimated. People could miss out on key benefits when they actively pass up thinking activities, noted Murayama.
This study had students from colleges in Japan and the U.K. as its participants. There is, therefore, a need to replicate the findings in more diverse populations, the team said.
The researchers stated that future studies should look into types of thinking to know which ones offer the most enjoyment and motivation. Scientists also need to find out why most people tend to underestimate how much enjoyment they will get from thinking.