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By Sally Torbey

Why is doing nothing so difficult?

Uploaded: Jul 18, 2014

A paper was published this month in the journal Science (choose "writing" and last title under "affective forecasting") that explains why I check my email at least 30 times a day, even though the most exciting item I will probably find is the announcement of a sale at swimoutlet.com or a recent UpToUs site upgrade.

Palo Alto Online blogger Cheryl Hahn Bac is the sixth author on the paper, which describes how folks experience time alone without external distractions. Some of the studies were conducted while she was a graduate student at University of Virginia.

Study participants were instructed to sit for a short period of time (no more than 15 minutes) in a room with nothing to do. They were asked to try to make this experience pleasant by relaxing and thinking positive thoughts, while staying seated in a chair and staying awake. Most folks found this task very difficult. In fact, it was so unpleasant that in one study participants chose to shock themselves, just to do something, rather than sit quietly and do nothing. I cannot help but think of how, whenever I have nothing else to distract me, I obsessively check email on my cell phone, which is probably only a little less unpleasant than the 2.3 mA shock that the women in the study chose to give themselves, (men received 4 mA as they were less sensitive to the pain).

According to Cheryl, the researchers were surprised at how difficult it was for the participants to entertain themselves by just thinking, and the researchers tried to come up with strategies to improve the experience. But even when they prompted the participants to plan ahead what they might think about, or complete the experiment in the comfort of their dorm room or home, the results were the same. Folks were bored and unhappy when alone with their thoughts. And, there is no correlation with use of cell phones or social media, so it is not just folks who are accustomed to the constant connection and stimulation that technology provides that were unhappy.

With all the evidence accumulating regarding the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and the ability to consciously direct our thoughts, these studies are an impressive demonstration of how hard those practices are to master and maintain. No wonder religions through the ages have incorporated prayer and quiet times of reflection, as our natural inclination seems to be to seek external stimulation, whether pleasurable or unpleasant, despite how important stilling the mind or directing our thoughts is for our well being. Another example of something so good for us that is, along with healthy eating and exercising, so hard to do!

I do take heart in the lack of correlation with social media use. It appears that at least technology is not causing this inability to enjoy stillness and quiet. Technology merely exploits this inclination by giving us a constantly available alternative activity.

I am trying to reduce my habit of compulsively checking email. Visualizing shocking myself whenever I am tempted to do so is, at least for now, a good deterrent!