In a report published Friday in the journal Science, researchers at the University of Virginia asked volunteers to go into a room without their cell phones or books or any other distractions and just sit for a period of time, six minutes to 15 minutes, and entertain themselves with their thoughts.
Most found it difficult to concentrate and most of them did not find the experience enjoyable.
When asked to repeat the process at home, about a third couldn’t make it through without cheating by turning on music or checking their phones, according to the study.
A Georgia Regents University psychiatrist said most people just don’t know what to do with themselves but could learn to enjoy it with a little instruction.
“It’s something that most of society doesn’t engage in on a regular basis,” said Dr. Dale Peeples, who was not involved in the research. “Most people if they do have down time they probably are engaging in some passive activity at least, watching TV or listening to music, texting or playing on the computer. A lot of people don’t have this kind of time built into their day.”
In fact, when the Virginia researchers gave test subjects the chance to distract themselves by giving themselves an electric shock, 67 percent of the men and a quarter of the woman hit the button to shock themselves at least once, including one man who hit it 190 times. Peeples, a child psychiatrist, said some of that might just be curiosity getting the better of them.
“When I read that, what popped into my mind was if you sit a kid in a room and you tell them, ‘Don’t push this button,’ it’s kind of a guarantee they’re going to push the button,” he said.
Because sitting and thinking is not part of many people’s everyday routines, “it can be a little bit off-putting,” Peeples said. “You kind of feel like I have to be doing something, I have to be productive. I’m just sitting here wasting time.”
But there are techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness, that do take some work but can make that time enjoyable for those who want to do it, he said.
“I think if people do invest a little energy into looking at meditation, looking at relaxation exercises, which do rely on having a little downtime where you are not engaged in any other activity, people can find that extremely refreshing once they learn how to make use of that time,” Peeples said.