It isn’t easy being alone with our thoughts. Nature makes monks seem manlier than ever with research that shows most people prefer physical pain to just sitting and thinking:
“We lack a comfort in just being alone with our thoughts,” says Malia Mason, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, who was not involved in the study. “We’re constantly looking to the external world for some sort of entertainment.”
[University of Virginia in Charlottesville psychologist Timothy] Wilson and his colleagues began by asking undergraduate students to stash their mobile phones and other distractions, and to sit in a sparsely furnished room for up to 15 minutes. Afterwards, nearly half of the 409 participants said that they did not enjoy the experience.
Just how uncomfortable was the experience? In the next experiment, participants were given a small electric shock — akin to a jolt of static electricity — that was so unpleasant that three-quarters of them said they would be willing to pay not to experience the shock again. Yet when they were placed in the room to sit alone with their thoughts, 67% of male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.
Wilson thinks that the discomfort comes from a lack of mental control: that it is difficult to tell our minds to stay on one topic and keep it there for a long time. Subjects who reported a positive experience during the experiment tended to think about future events, often with loved ones. Those who did not enjoy the time for quiet reflection often thought about work.