“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal in the mid-17th century. The sentiment may be truer today than ever, according to a paper published July 4 in Science. Researchers asked participants to rate how much they enjoyed being in a room with nothing to do. Of 409 participants, nearly half said that they did not like the experience. When asked to do the same at home for six to 15 minutes, a third said that they had cheated.
In one telling experiment, each of 55 participants was seated alone in a quiet, empty room with nothing to do—except they had access to a button that would deliver an electric shock to their ankle which they had previously described as “unpleasant.” In their 15 minutes of solitude, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to shock themselves instead of simply sitting quietly. Lead author Timothy Wilson, a University of Virginia psychologist, says that with smartphones, tablets and TVs within reach anytime, many of us may not know what to do when we have time to ponder without distraction—but the electric shock results were still surprising. He suggests we could make our downtime—even traffic jams and waiting rooms—more relaxing and interesting by learning how to be alone with our thoughts.
“I suspect that practice helps, as does finding topics that you enjoy thinking about in detail and can return to time and again, so that you don't have to start from scratch each time,” Wilson says.