The value of doing nothing
With spring in the air, I’ve been considering a break with tradition – instead of the annual call to action, to clean up and clear out, I’ve been thinking about the psychological benefits of doing nothing.
Not reading. Not sitting around watching telly or even listening to music but doing absolutely nothing. Just thinking, reflecting and letting the mind wander.
Last year, a psychologist at the University of Virginia called Timothy Wilson, noticed there was little research on letting people just go off on their own and spend time with their thoughts. So he set about conducting 11 studies, involving over 700 hundred people and this is what he found – people don’t like spending time in their own heads. In fact many will go to painful lengths to avoid it.
The student participants in the studies were asked to spend just six to 15 minutes alone in a room with only their own thoughts for company. The majority described this as an ‘unpleasant experience’. Wilson tried the same experiment with people from a broad range of backgrounds and aged between 18 and 77 – and he got the same result.
Seeing how hard people found it to do nothing, the researchers took their study a step further. Would people prefer to do something unpleasant rather than do nothing at all? To test this, participants were given the option of administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button. Incredibly, 64% of men and 15% of women preferred to give themselves an electric shock than spend time alone with their thoughts.
So what are we so afraid of? Without our TVs, laptops, ipads and mobiles to distract us, it could be that our minds turn to our problems; unhappy relationships, unprocessed loss, the leaky tap we still haven’t fixed and that doesn’t feel good, so that we would rather keep busy, or even shock ourselves, than be with those difficult feelings.
So, if doing nothing is such hard work, shouldn’t we just avoid it and keep busy? After all, keeping busy is something our culture encourages. From a young age we are told to stop daydreaming and get going.
Maybe we are missing a trick. Maybe doing nothing is extremely valuable because it allows us to reflect on that unfinished business, consider new perspectives and maybe even start to resolve some things. Suppressing problems with busyness places a huge strain on us and isn’t sustainable – think insomnia, OCD, addiction, dissociation, anxiety. In addition, doing nothing is associated with a greater capacity to empathise. ‘The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind’ says Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist from the Centre for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy.
And finally, as anyone who has their best ideas in the shower will know, the wandering mind is a creative mind. When our mind is free to wander with no purpose or focus, we can be more creative, more innovative, less bound to the concrete realities and limitations of the external world (Baird and Smallwood, Inspired by distraction). So, consider switching off the TV, ditching the duster and put your mind to doing nothing instead.
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About Deborah Holder
Deborah Holder MBACP, integrative counsellor and psychotherapist.