Ask almost anyone how they like to spend their down time, and they'll probably mention activities like reading, playing games or watching some sort of screen. What you're much less likely to hear are verbs like pondering, reflecting, ruminating or just good old-fashioned thinking.
This isn't me just complaining about "people these days"-- it's a trend with our down-time preferences. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that people everywhere would prefer to do just about anything other than be alone with their thoughts.
"Participants randomly assigned to do something reported significantly greater enjoyment than did participants randomly assigned to think for pleasure," the study reads.
Previous research had already revealed, unsurprisingly, that people in the distraction-dominated United States have little interest in thinking for fun, but this recent study led by University of Virginia social psychology graduate student Nicholas Buttrick duplicates the finding in 11 diverse countries: Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the United States.
"The results were consistent in every country," Buttrick and his colleagues report.
Indeed, just about anywhere you go today that has decent wireless service, you'll see the masses filling all their idle moments with a wealth of distractions available via our smartphones.
We tell ourselves that our newfound ability to jam all our interstitial moments with texts, tweets and searches has made us more productive. But all that nonstop doing also pushes out available time and brain power for simple thinking, which is necessary to process the deluge of inputs we all absorb every hour.
In fact, science has actually found this to be true. A 2012 review of research on the brain's so-called "default mode," which is basically when we're just resting and thinking, is essential for its optimal development and functioning. The research also specifically calls out overuse of social media as potentially problematic.
Instead of taking the time to synthesize the onslaught of information and then actually generate some sort of a new output (you know, real productivity), we are provided with a menu of predetermined likes or other reactions that add nothing new or valuable to the world.
You've surely experienced or at least heard of the old trope of inspiration striking in the shower. This isn't because shampoo makes your neurons fire faster, it's because it's an activity that forces us to be alone with our thoughts (at least until we started bringing waterproof bluetooth speakers in the bathroom with us -- I'm guilty of that one, too).
A paper published earlier this year in Psychological Research backs this up:
Solutions via insight and creative ideas are associated with spontaneous internal cognition, which has a greater chance of being expressed when a person is at rest, in a positive mood, or when attention is away from a demanding task as during mind wandering.
All this made me think of a trend I've noticed in my own life, as I'm sure you have in yours, too: Keeping up with all the incoming information can take up far more time and energy than we spend producing any kind of creative output, and the imbalance has grown dramatically worse over the past decade.
The first step to putting things back in balance is simply recognizing what the science is confirming about our own lives. We're becoming increasingly conditioned to fill our idle time with external stimulation. But as Plato figured out thousands of years ago, when thinking for fun was all the rage, "An unexamined life is not worth living."
I think the old Greek guy got this one right. So much so, that for the past few years, I have literally blocked out at least one hour per week on my calendar for "Reflection." I'm serious, it's actually on my Google Calendar, usually on Friday afternoon. I've also stopped wearing headphones while jogging and taken the speaker out of the shower, as these are times when some of my best ideas crop up.
And a lot of that thinking was just as much fun as whatever you did on Instagram standing in line today. It's time you put down the phone and got started doing nothing too.