How to be alone with your thoughts

Our minds can conjure up incredible daydreams, fond memories and extended reveries, and studies show that this kind of thinking for pleasure is good for us.

“If we’re not the only species, we’re one of the very few species that has these kinds of internal extended lines of thought, not just about things that have happened or things that might happen, but also things that will never happen, or that could have happened,” said Erin Westgate, a social psychologist at the University of Florida.

But “just thinking” seems difficult, and many people struggle with being alone with the person they are with the most: themselves. When asked to spend time alone thinking, most people find it challenging and not all that satisfying, studies show.

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Even Henry David Thoreau, famed for contemplating his thoughts alone at Walden Pond, “spent a suspiciously large amount of his ‘solitary’ retreat in town visiting his neighbors,” Westgate and her colleagues noted in a study last year.

When asked to rate how enjoyable thinking for pleasure is, the experience tends to fall in the middle, about the equivalent of brushing teeth, Westgate said. “It’s not torture, but it’s not the best thing in the world,” she said.

Studies show that people have a consistent preference for doing over thinking, even if the alternative activity is something that seems unappealing, such as proofreading or even giving themselves electric shocks.

As with other challenging cognitive tasks, spending time alone with our thoughts can be good for us – and we can learn to be better at it.

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Solitude is not inherently good or bad, but “just one of the many normal experiences that we have in our life,” said Thuy-vy Nguyen, a social psychologist researching solitude at the University of Durham.

Nguyen and her colleagues, however, found that spending time alone for just 15 minutes has a deactivating effect on our mood. Participants had reduced arousal, and high-energy emotions, both positive and negative, such as anxiety, anger and excitement. Participants felt calmer and more peaceful.

“I think the key benefit of solitude is through dampening arousal and allowing us opportunities for rest and relaxation,” Nguyen said.

Being able to think for pleasure could help us tolerate uncomfortable situations, Westgate said. Research has found that people who engage in pleasant fantasy are better at keeping their hands in cold water longer, suggesting that the practice can increase pain tolerance.

More importantly, thinking for pleasure may be more meaningful than what we normally do during our downtime.

In one study, Westgate and her colleagues asked over 170 students to think for pleasure during their downtime or go about their day as usual. Those who were asked to think for pleasure found it both as enjoyable and more meaningful than time spent normally, which, like for many people, turned out to be “mindlessly scrolling on the phone,” Westgate said.

When given the choice and done with intention, time spent alone with our thoughts, though difficult, can increase our engagement with life and its meaning.

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Enjoying our thoughts is not a uniquely American challenge.

In one 2019 study, over 2,500 participants from 11 countries of different cultural and economic backgrounds were assigned to do something or think for pleasure. There were some differences, but whether someone was from Belgium, Korea, Turkey or Costa Rica, on average, people enjoyed doing something in solitude to thinking.

These results can feel disappointing – even though humans have this unique ability to think for fun, we don’t seem especially good at it.

But from another perspective, this is encouraging because it suggests that “rather than something we’re born with, this is a skill that any of us can learn and get better at,” Westgate said. “Everyone gets better at it when we give them some support to make it easier.”

In a review of 36 studies encompassing over 10,000 participants, Westgate and her colleagues found that when we set a goal of enjoying our thoughts, we end up enjoying them.

The key is making the thoughts personally meaningful and easier to think about.

Think when it is easy to. We are most likely to engage in thinking for pleasure during downtime such as when we are in transit or engaged in personal care such as showering. These routine and automatic thoughts do not require our attention or additional brain power.

As “meaning-making beings,” we can reframe these moments of solitude as beneficial and normalize it as a way of self-regulating our experiences, Nguyen said.

Write down the topics and keep them on hand. Writing lists of topics to think about in advance can offload some of the cognitive burden.

Westgate’s research shows that “thinking aids” such as screen notes or index cards make thinking for pleasure easier and, as a result, more pleasurable; she keeps a note in her phone about things to daydream about.

Make the topics both meaningful and enjoyable. In one 2021 study, Westgate and her colleagues instructed over 250 undergraduate students to think “meaningful” thoughts or gave them specific meaningful topics such as their first kiss, an upcoming vacation or fantasy wedding day.

Participants who were given specific examples found their thinking period to be more enjoyable and meaningful than those who were asked to entertain themselves with their thoughts without any guidance.

Pleasurable thoughts are not inherently meaningful, and meaningful thoughts are not inherently enjoyable. Preselecting topics that are both can help improve the experience of those thoughts, which may make the task of being alone with your thoughts easier in the future.

“It can be this tool in the tool kit to increase engagement and increase meaning that is free,” Westgate said.

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