Imagine sitting by yourself with nothing to do but think. It may sound nice, especially on a hectic day. But according to new research, sitting alone in a room is such an unpleasant experience for many people that they’d rather do anything else—even hurt themselves—for a distraction.
In a series of 11 studies, researchers at the University of Virginia found that people did not like spending six to 15 minutes alone in a room. In fact, in one experiment, 67 percent of men chose to administer electric shocks to themselves while sitting alone, and 35 percent of women chose to do the same. Ouch?
The reason for the difference in men and women's reactions likely stems from men’s innate tendency to seek higher intensity sensations, says study author and Ph.D. student David Reinhard. And concentrating on positive thoughts like an upcoming vacation or fidgeting with a rubber band didn't make the "me" time any more enjoyable, he adds.
Overall, these findings make us wonder: Have we completely lost our ability to simply be lost in our thoughts in today’s busy world? As Reinhard notes, there are many times it would be useful to be able to withstand, and even enjoy, a period of silent thinking—from a grueling training run or a long dentist appointment. Here's how you can learn to enjoy alone time.
1. Stop clicking. “We’ve turned into stimulation junkies,” says Sharon Salzberg, New York Times bestselling author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. "We check Twitter, then Facebook, then Instagram, but when we're distracted, we feel more stressed, agitated, and angry, research shows." Next time you're alone and feeling anxious, stressed, or restless, the most fundamental thing is not to give in to the urge to jump around the Internet, suggests Salzberg. Recognize the feelings of anxiety or restlessness as they manifest in your body—in your stomach or your neck, for example—and if you can learn to simply "hang out" with those unpleasant feelings, the less you'll have to act to try to avoid them.
2. Breathe. “The greatest benefit to being alone is that your body and mind get reorganized. Silent contemplation is like recharging a battery,” says Gabrielle Bernstein, New York Times bestselling author of Miracles Now, who suggests spending one minute a day in stillness. Try her breathing technique to silence your mind and calm your energy: Breathe in for five seconds. Hold your breath for five seconds. Release for five seconds. Repeat for one minute. (For more on proper breathing techniques, check out these tips on how to breathe your way to a fitter body.)
3. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts. When you're alone, nagging doubts can run through your mind and make you feel down. "While you can't really silence negative self-talk, you can learn not to feed those thoughts, or not take them so to heart," Salzberg says. “We take our thoughts as reality, but often they’re not." A big part of mindfulness training is to see thoughts as simply thoughts, she says. Try mentally "tagging" the thought as just that—a thought—in order to remind yourself that you don't have to fight the thought, but simply not let it overcome you.