We are always busy, running to the next meeting, project, activity, and appointment. We even walk 10% faster than we did 10 years ago according to a study of thirty-two cities around the world. We have so much to accomplish that we have become addicted to stimulation. It is torture to be alone with our thoughts. How much torture? Some brilliant psychologists decided to find out.
Psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard recruited 146 subjects and required them to sit in a chair, alone, in a quiet room for twelve minutes. All external devices, including smartphones and watches, were confiscated. However, one type of external stimulation was allowed. A button located next to their chair, when pushed, would administer an electric shock to the participant. Before the experiment began, the participants were asked to press the button “just for practice.” All of the participants reported that the shock was unpleasant, something they would avoid if at all possible. Then the experiment began. One at a time, the subjects were asked to sit “for ten or twenty minutes” (exactly how long they did not know, since their devices had been taken from them), with two rules: One, they couldn’t fall asleep, and second, they couldn’t get out of the chair. But…..if they wanted to press the button and get shocked, that was okay. The researchers found that sixty-seven percent of the men and twenty-five percent of the women chose to shock themselves during the twelve minutes of the experiment rather than sit quietly with their thoughts.**
The big question is whether you would be one of the individuals who were so bored and so frightened to be alone with yourself that you would push the button to shock yourself.
In my recent study of some famous philosophers, I came upon a small booklet called Walking by Henry David Thoreau. He loved being alone with his thoughts so much that he would walk up to 4 hours a day. In an age of stress, constant demands, and desired productivity it might be good to find out that we are missing out on an incredible human–ourselves. In what psychologists call the “Terror of Aloneness” we are afraid of what questions may come to our minds when we are alone with our thoughts.
“Am I who I want to be?”
“Am I doing what I should be doing with my life?”
“Am I making a difference in the lives of others and the world?”
“Do I like my life?”
You will never find answers to these important personal questions with your AirPods in your ears listening to music, podcasts (well, except for this one!) and the news during every waking hour. You need solitude. Take 30 minutes this week to try being alone with your thoughts. You might find out you actually like who you are.
**Story found in “In Praise of Wasting Time” by Alan Lightman