Whenever I have a few moments of down time — every weekday, for instance, when I’m waiting in the car pool pickup line for my children at camp — I grab my phone and check to see whether anything interesting has happened on Instagram. The thing is, I don’t particularly like Instagram. Social media usually makes me feel insecure, but somehow that is preferable to sitting alone with my thoughts.
I’m certainly not the only person who would rather do something than engage in introspection. In research that was published in 2014, adults were given the option of either entertaining themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes or giving themselves painful electric shocks. Sixty-seven percent of men and 25 percent of women chose the shocks.
A study published last week suggests that our tendency to avoid being alone with our thoughts is in part because “we tend to underestimate the value of thinking,” said one of the study’s authors, Kou Murayama, a psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Dr. Murayama and his colleagues asked adults to first predict how much they would like sitting in a quiet room alone, and then actually had them do it for 20 minutes. To their surprise, the participants enjoyed the experience more than they had expected to.