“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.“
A recent survey of American adults by the Bureau of Labor Statistics asked about how they spent their prior 24 hours. Shockingly, 83% of respondents said they spent zero time in the prior 24 hours “relaxing or thinking.” A primary reason for likely is that most people don’t enjoy being alone with their thoughts. We prefer to be distracted. We tend to prefer any type of leisure – watching TV, surfing social media, watching cat videos or reading to just sitting and thinking.
A fascinating study on this point was performed by researchers at the University of Virginia which concluded that “most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is unpleasant.” In their study they found that “many participants preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left along with their thoughts.” WOW.
How this experiment works is described well in a podcast interview given by Erin Westgate, one of the researchers:
So we brought people into the lab, and the first thing we did is we took all of their personal possessions away from them, so no cellphones, no watches, no iPods, nothing like that, and then we just sat them in this small, empty room with no windows, and we told them that they only had two rules: They couldn’t get out of their chairs, and they couldn’t fall asleep.
And we asked them to spend 10 to 15 minutes just trying to entertain themselves with their own thoughts, and we made it really, really clear that we wanted them to have a pleasant experience, that they should be happy thoughts, not making a grocery list, or something like that.
And so we told them: Sit here for 10 to 15 minutes, try to entertain yourself with your thoughts—if you want to, you can press this button. And there was a button right there that connected to an electrode on their ankle, and at any time during that period, while they were supposed to be thinking, they could shock themselves if they wanted to.
And they had experienced the shock before, it was one of the first things we did when they came into the lab; we let them experience the shock, see how it works. We asked them if they enjoyed it, we asked if they would be willing to pay money to not be shocked again, and most people didn’t like the shock; they said it wasn’t enjoyable. Then we just asked them to sit there, try to entertain themselves with their thoughts. We gave them the option of shocking themselves if they wanted to, and we were absolutely astounded at the end of the study when about 25 percent of the women and 67 percent of the men actually chose to shock themselves instead of just think.
A clarifying point from the study paper – only people “who had reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked” were used in this study. Another interesting fact: while most people only shocked themselves a few times, “one outlier administered 190 shocks on himself.”
Is our technological age driving us to distraction? It’s probably the opposite. In the words of Ms. Westgate again: “It may be that our use of technology isn’t so much a cause of our difficulty with thinking, but a symptom of it. We have a hard time thinking, and there’s a phone in our pocket and it’s perfectly designed to entertain us, and it’s so much easier than just sitting and concentrating.”
Thus, potentially the root problem of our technological addiction many of us have is our inability to sit alone in a room alone with our thoughts. We don’t practice the art of solitude.
How to learn the art of solitude? Like anything, being alone with our thoughts and not turning to distraction takes practice. Intentionally take moments throughout the day to just “be.” Notice the need/want for distraction and put it off. There will be time enough for distraction later. Additionally, the UVA researchers suggest adopting a meditation practice.