Summer is coming soon. I can feel it in the softening of the air, but I can see it, too, in the textbooks on my children's desks. The number of uncut pages at the back grows smaller and smaller. The loose-leaf is ragged at the edges, the binder plastic ripped at the corners. An old remembered glee rises inside me. Summer is coming. Uniform skirts in mothballs. Pencils with their points left broken. Open windows. Day trips to the beach. Pickup games. Hanging out.
How boring it was.
Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.
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And that, to me, is one of the saddest things about the lives of American children today. Soccer leagues, acting classes, tutors--the calendar of the average middle-class kid is so over the top that soon Palm handhelds will be sold in Toys "R" Us. Our children are as overscheduled as we are, and that is saying something.
This has become so bad that parents have arranged to schedule times for unscheduled time. Earlier this year the privileged suburb of Ridgewood, N.J., announced a Family Night, when there would be no homework, no athletic practices and no after-school events. This was terribly exciting until I realized that this was not one night a week, but one single night. There is even a free-time movement, and Web site: familylife1st.org. Among the frequently asked questions provided online: "What would families do with family time if they took it back?"
Let me make a suggestion for the kids involved: how about nothing? It is not simply that it is pathetic to consider the lives of children who don't have a moment between piano and dance and homework to talk about their day or just search for split ends, an enormously satisfying leisure-time activity of my youth. There is also ample psychological research suggesting that what we might call "doing nothing" is when human beings actually do their best thinking, and when creativity comes to call. Perhaps we are creating an entire generation of people whose ability to think outside the box, as the current parlance of business has it, is being systematically stunted by scheduling.
A study by the University of Michigan quantified the downtime deficit; in the last 20 years American kids have lost about four unstructured hours a week. There has even arisen a global Right to Play movement: in the Third World it is often about child labor, but in the United States it is about the sheer labor of being a perpetually busy child. In Omaha, Neb., a group of parents recently lobbied for additional recess. Hooray, and yikes.
How did this happen? Adults did it. There is a culture of adult distrust that suggests that a kid who is not playing softball or attending science-enrichment programs--or both--is huffing or boosting cars: if kids are left alone, they will not stare into the middle distance and consider the meaning of life and how come your nose in pictures never looks the way you think it should, but instead will get into trouble. There is also the culture of cutthroat and unquestioning competition that leads even the parents of preschoolers to gab about prestigious colleges without a trace of irony: this suggests that any class in which you do not enroll your first grader will put him at a disadvantage in, say, law school.
Finally, there is a culture of workplace presence (as opposed to productivity). Try as we might to suggest that all these enrichment activities are for the good of the kid, there is ample evidence that they are really for the convenience of parents with way too little leisure time of their own. Stories about the resignation of presidential aide Karen Hughes unfailingly reported her dedication to family time by noting that she arranged to get home at 5:30 one night a week to have dinner with her son. If one weekday dinner out of five is considered laudable, what does that say about what's become commonplace?
Summer is coming. It used to be a time apart for kids, a respite from the clock and the copybook, the organized day. Every once in a while, either guilty or overwhelmed or tired of listening to me keen about my monumental boredom, my mother would send me to some rinky-dink park program that consisted almost entirely of three-legged races and making things out of Popsicle sticks. Now, instead, there are music camps, sports camps, fat camps, probably thin camps. I mourn hanging out in the backyard. I mourn playing Wiffle ball in the street without a sponsor and matching shirts. I mourn drawing in the dirt with a stick.
Maybe that kind of summer is gone for good. Maybe this is the leading edge of a new way of living that not only has no room for contemplation but is contemptuous of it. But if downtime cannot be squeezed during the school year into the life of frantic and often joyless activity with which our children are saddled while their parents pursue frantic and often joyless activity of their own, what about summer? Do most adults really want to stand in line for Space Mountain or sit in traffic to get to a shore house that doesn't have enough saucepans? Might it be even more enriching for their children to stay at home and do nothing? For those who say they will only watch TV or play on the computer, a piece of technical advice: the cable box can be unhooked, the modem removed. Perhaps it is not too late for American kids to be given the gift of enforced boredom for at least a week or two, staring into space, bored out of their gourds, exploring the inside of their own heads. "To contemplate is to toil, to think is to do," said Victor Hugo. "Go outside and play," said Prudence Quindlen. Both of them were right.
Most people are just not comfortable in their own heads, according to a new psychological investigation led by the University of Virginia.
The investigation found that most would rather be doing something -- possibly even hurting themselves -- than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts, said the researchers, whose findings will be published July 4 in the journal Science.
In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.
"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.
The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this "thinking period" wasn't very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.
"That was surprising -- that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.
He does not necessarily attribute this to the fast pace of modern society, or the prevalence of readily available electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people's desire to always have something to do. In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it. Based on these surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time "relaxing or thinking."
During several of Wilson's experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes -- depending on the study -- entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions. Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.
"We found that about a third admitted that they had 'cheated' at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair," Wilson said. "And they didn't enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab."
An additional experiment randomly assigned participants to spend time with their thoughts or the same amount of time doing an external activity, such as reading or listening to music, but not to communicate with others. Those who did the external activities reported that they enjoyed themselves much more than those asked to just think, that they found it easier to concentrate and that their minds wandered less. The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, "Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?"
The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of also administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.
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.
"What is striking," the investigators write, "is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid." Wilson and his team note that men tend to seek "sensations" more than women, which may explain why 67 percent of men self-administered shocks to the 25 percent of women who did.
Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking 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."
Materials provided by University of Virginia. Original written by Fariss Samarrai. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
- T. D. Wilson, D. A. Reinhard, E. C. Westgate, D. T. Gilbert, N. Ellerbeck, C. Hahn, C. L. Brown, A. Shaked. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 2014; 345 (6192): 75 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830
Cite This Page:
University of Virginia. "Doing something is better than doing nothing for most people, study shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 July 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140703142154.htm>.
University of Virginia. (2014, July 3). Doing something is better than doing nothing for most people, study shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 12, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140703142154.htm
University of Virginia. "Doing something is better than doing nothing for most people, study shows." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140703142154.htm (accessed March 12, 2018).