Being Comfortable with Your Own Thoughts

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

Would you rather be alone with your own thoughts for 15 minutes or give yourself a painful electric shock? The question seems like a hypothetical one that a person would find in a board game or during idle conversation with friends.

However, this very type of situation was presented to participants in an experiment by some social psychologists. They found that people elected to voluntarily give themselves a painful electrical shock rather than spend 15 minutes of idle time alone with their own thoughts.

Two thirds of the men and a quarter of the women who participated in the study elected to give themselves shocks. The experiment highlighted the issue of people becoming more and more uncomfortable being away from distractions and alone with their own thoughts.

This study and its’ results has particular relevance in our society as we are bombarded by sights and sounds coming from various devices. When the cacophony of noise becomes normal, we begin to forget how to be comfortable away from it.

If adults in the study had a hard time with idle thought, then children and adolescents are likely to have an even more difficult time as they have grown up in this environment. Evidence of this pops up occasionally in various newspaper articles where adolescents have been asked to not use their cell phones for a day and most can’t make it without at least sneaking a peek.

While technology is wonderful in all that it offers, children and adolescents should not be denied the power of daydreaming and idle thought. In fact, adolescents need time to be alone with their own thoughts. It helps them resolve many major developmental issues such as answering the questions of who they are and where they are headed in life.

Parents can play a role in encouraging their children and adolescents to become more comfortable engaging in idle thought. Start slowly by taking a few minutes each evening where all electronic devices are turned off, including the radio and television.

Everyone has to promise to not to do any tasks, speak, or try to communicate with each other during those few minutes. Rather, the focus should be on letting the mind wander wherever it wants to go.

Once everyone gets used to the idea, try to expand the period of idle time. This should allow children and adolescents to get a glimpse of  another way of using time that is in stark contrast to the typical assault of sights and sounds that we have become accustomed.

This alternative way to spend time can become a valued skill in children and adolescents’ repertoire. It may spark greater creativity or innovative breakthroughs that would not have been possible otherwise.

The advantages don’t stop with the children as parents are likely to benefit too. Most parents get too caught up in the events of the day and don’t make the time to just be idle and let their thoughts drift. For the next week, try to give yourself and your family a little idle time to daydream and see what new avenues it might open.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on August 17, 2014.

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