Tomás Fano/flickr

Tomás Fano/flickr

Is it hard to be alone with your thoughts? French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that ”All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That seems like an exaggeration, but there’s recent research confirming the idea that we have a hard time sitting by ourselves with nothing but our brains to entertain us.

A team of researchers led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson had research participants sit alone in a room for anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. As reported in The Atlantic, over the course of 6 studies, 58% of the participants rated the difficulty of the task above the midpoint on a numerical scale, and 42% rated their level enjoyment below the midpoint.

That still means that a substantial number of participants ranked their enjoyment at or above the midpoint. Nonetheless, there is additional evidence that many people found the task unpleasant. Participants rated activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles far preferable to sitting with their thoughts. When participants were assigned to do the task at home, 32% admitted to cheating. And, amazingly, some participants preferred electric shock to their thoughts.

In the study involving shock, participants were hooked up to a generator and gave themselves a jolt of current before having to sit alone with their thoughts. Taking only the data from those participants who said they would be willing to pay money to not experience the shock again (thus presumably culling out the stray masochist from the sample), a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one shock during the period of time when they were alone with nothing to do but think.

Is the inability to sit quietly and reflect just a problem for Instagraming, Tweeting, Facebooking Millennials? No: enjoyment of the task was unrelated to either age or social media use. Perhaps our discomfort with such stillness is a modern phenomenon, but, if so, it seems that it is a feature of Modernism in the broad sense, going back at least to the 17th century, when Pascal penned the above comment.

“Be still, and know that I am God” the psalmist wrote (Psalm 46, NIV), suggesting that stillness is intimately associated with knowledge of God. Many of us desire to know God, but, if we are infected with the restlessness of the age, we may have difficulty sitting quietly enough to sense God’s presence. Perhaps, if we could make it our habit to sit and enter our interior space, we would find that we would plumb not just our own depths, but the heart of the ever-holy, ever-faithful, ever-loving One. We would then sense a power that electric current can’t hope to emulate!