Remember those bathroom readers filled with trivia, factoids, and stories? They’ve been entertaining in the throne room since 1988. Though the 35th anniversary edition came out last fall, it probably won’t hit the bestseller lists.
The truth is most of us have something else to distract us in the bathroom — our smartphones. We pull them out on the john, at stoplights, in line at checkout, while we pump gas — virtually anywhere we have to wait for more than ten seconds. The lure of social stimuli gives us a dopamine hit that keeps us coming back any time we get a minute.
But what if we’re cheating ourselves out of a better kind of mental reward? What if we resisted the urge to pull out our phones as much and spent some time just thinking instead? Sounds crazy, right? What a waste of time!
But a recent study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that the act of “just thinking” can be more rewarding than we might realize. The authors of the paper acknowledge that the ability to engage in internal thoughts without external stimulation is a unique characteristic in humans, yet we regularly underappreciate the benefits of doing it. This might be one reason we’re so quick to reach for our phones — we don’t know what we’re missing.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with more than 250 college students in both Japan and the UK. Participants were asked to sit in a quiet room without doing anything for 20 minutes. The authors consistently found that people experienced more enjoyment, engagement, and motivation than they had predicted they would beforehand.
“[P]eople often proactively avoid just waiting to think,” report the authors, under the assumption that just thinking would be boring and not stimulating. But it turns out we’re designed to think, if we give it a chance: “[P]eople can sustain intrinsically motivated behavior because they can generate internal reward from the change in mental representation.”
In other words, we can benefit from just thinking. Spontaneous thinking, notes the study, includes daydreaming, mind wandering, episodic future thinking, recollection of autobiographical memories, and nostalgia.
Each of these thought processes is valuable to us. For example, daydreaming, as psychologist Jerome Singer’s research has revealed, is our unique ability to alternate between fantasy and reality, a force that can facilitate change and make life more bearable at every stage of our lives.
Mind wandering, or stream of consciousness thought, gives us several mental gains, including the ability to consider obstacles to future goals, generate novel, creative thoughts, and place our experiences in meaningful context, which can foster well-being and enhance health outcomes.
Even nostalgia, an emotion long considered medically and socially detrimental, has recently been shown to be a psychological resource that can provide us with a reservoir of meaning, increasing our sense of belonging and acceptance and our self-continuity, the connection between our past living and our present life.
So how about it? Are you willing to make a New Year’s resolution to find some time in your busy week to engage in some beneficial task-free thinking? Try it for two minutes as you pump gas instead of checking your phone. Take a 15-minute walk and daydream or let your mind wander. Work up to a full 20 minutes of just thinking in a quiet space, at least once a week.
Meanwhile, keep a journal handy and jot down some of the things you think about during the week. What new ideas did you come up with? What obstacles do you need to overcome to move forward? Did any past events come to mind? Keeping a record of your spontaneous thinking is a way to process what’s in your head and may come in handy later, helping you move closer to your goals.
In today’s information-laden age, why not kick off 2023 by making the time to just think? It’s a simple practice that can enhance your direction, sense of purpose and human intimacy — the very basics of a meaningful life.