Study: Americans Generally Don't Like Meditating

By Erik Derr | Jul 08, 2014 10:44 PM EDT

While new research from Carnegie Mellon University finds periodic meditation indeed relieves stress, another study from the University of Virginia suggests a majority of Americans can't stand being alone with their thoughts.

In fact, the Virginia investigation discovered, most folks would choose to do just about anything else -- maybe even hurting themselves -- over doing nothing or sitting in quite introspection.

Findings from the UV study were set to be published July 4 in the journal Science.

Through a series of 11 studies, psychologist Timothy Wilson, along with fellow researchers at UV and also Harvard University, learned study participants representing a range of ages generally did not enjoy even short periods of time alone in a room, with nothing to do but think and daydream.

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The study subjects wanted to be involved in external activities like listening to music or using a smartphone much more. Some even preferred -- over thinking -- to play with a set-up that gave them mild electric shocks.

"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising -- I certainly do. But our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time," Wilson said in a news release.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study's 15-minute "thinking" period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

The time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to remain alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes.

Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom told researchers the "thinking period" wasn't very enjoyable and it was hard to concentrate.

Wilson found pretty much the same results when he led another study with participants from a broader selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years.

"That was surprising -- that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," said Wilson, adding he doesn't necessarily think the inability to sit still is a product of the faster pace of society, although those in the experiments clearly seemed to always need something to keep themselves busy.

Wilson concluded in the study that people generally prefer not to disengage from their world, so, when they do, they don't derive much enjoyment from it.

Study surveys demonstrated Americans spent filled their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time "relaxing or thinking."

Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still exploring the exact reasons why people in their study found it so difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. Everyone, he noted, enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, but these inward-directed thoughts may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously -- and are more difficult to do on command.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," he said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities."

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