How much do most people dislike spending time with their own thoughts? One way to answer that question is to look at what we do when we might be forced to hang out in our own heads. When waiting in line, for instance, do most folks daydream contentedly? No, they instantly pull out their phones.
And if our collective screen addiction isn't enough to convince you that people generally don't enjoy their thoughts, then a recent study should. It got a lot of media attention a few years back because it was so shocking -- nearly 50 percent of people, it found, would rather give themselves a mild electric shock than spend time alone with their thoughts.
The fact that half the population finds spending time in their own heads more painful than a zap of electricity is pretty grim. It's also a shame, according to new research out of Harvard, the University of Florida, and the University of Virginia recently published in the journal Emotion. The study found it's possible (and relatively easy) to train people to enjoy their own daydreams.
Daydreaming is important ... but hard.
Daydreaming might sound like a frivolous topic to study, but as Erin Westgate, a University of Florida psychology professor who participated in the research, points out, we do a lot of dumb things because we're so bad at entertaining ourselves with our thoughts.
Many traffic accidents are caused when people reach for their phones to relieve a moment's boredom at a stop light, and studies show we're more likely to participate in cruel behavior when we're bored (as the study above shows, we're even cruel to ourselves).
Plus, daydreaming can be rewarding in itself. It can boost pain tolerance (just ask any runner who has daydreamed their way through a particularly grueling stretch), makes us more resilient and self-reliant, and serves as a playground for our creativity. Sometimes it's just fun, too.
Daydreaming is more valuable than it first appears, but it is also more difficult. "You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter, and audience of a mental performance," Westgate notes. "Even though it looks like you're doing nothing, it's cognitively taxing."
How to be a better daydreamer
Which is probably why when Westgate's team first asked volunteers to spend some time daydreaming, they mostly reported the experience as unpleasant. But the research team discovered they were able to improve participants' ability to enjoy their own thoughts simply by offering them a little guidance.
First, recognize daydreaming as an adult doesn't come naturally. "This is hard for everybody," Whitlock insists. "The encouraging part is we can all get better."
Keep some topics for possible daydreams in your back pocket. Most people get tripped up because they don't know what to daydream about, so instead they worry or just imagine some momentary pleasure. A better bet, according to the researchers, is to think about something that's both pleasant and meaningful like a specific memory, something you're looking forward to such as an upcoming vacation, or a future accomplishment.
Don't get into the weeds. If you start worrying about when you're going to schedule a service for your car or what ingredients you need to pick up for tonight's dinner, you're planning, not daydreaming. Gently direct your thoughts back to more pleasant topics.
Follow these four simple steps and the next time you find yourself with some time to kill, instead of reaching for your phone (or that electric shock machine that some strange researcher left in the room), you can spend some time enjoying your own thoughts instead.