In a recent study at the University of Virginia, people were asked to sit alone for a few minutes with no access to cell phones, books or other distractions. In the room was a device that gave harmless but uncomfortable electric shocks. Everyone agreed to experience one shock at the beginning of the session. After feeling it, they all stated that, if necessary, they would pay to prevent more shocks, but it turned out that additional shocks were optional. Participants were asked only to remain seated, to stay awake and to entertain themselves with their thoughts for the next 15 minutes.
The researchers expected that people might appreciate the chance to sit quietly and think. But most participants rated the experience as boring and unpleasant. Moreover, twelve of the 18 men in the study, and 6 of the 24 women, voluntarily gave themselves at least one more shock during the 15-minute thinking period by pushing a button on the device. Several shocked themselves three or four times.
These findings are surprising. It’s hard to believe that ordinary people chose to distract themselves with electric shocks that they had just claimed they would pay to avoid. Yet there are understandable reasons for not wanting to be alone with one’s thoughts.
Most people have an abundance of unpleasant or even painful thoughts. We have worries about unresolved problems or upcoming stressors, memories of difficult or embarrassing experiences, angry thoughts about unfair situations, and sad thoughts about disappointments and losses. We distract ourselves with electronic devices, TV, books, socializing, work and other activities, but as soon as the mind is not occupied with something else, unwanted thoughts rush in — especially the ones we’ve been trying hardest to suppress.
Another problem with unpleasant thoughts is that we tend to take them seriously. Thoughts like, “That was a complete disaster,” “I’ll never amount to anything,” “People are idiots,” and “Things never work out,” often feel like the absolute truth, like dismal but important insights about the way things really are. It’s easy to forget that they’re just thoughts.
Mindfulness provides a new perspective on thoughts. Mindfulness of thoughts means watching them come and go, with friendly curiosity and nonjudgmental acceptance. When you’re mindful of your thoughts, you realize that thoughts are constantly appearing and disappearing, and that you can choose whether to believe or comply with them.
Imagine that your thoughts are actors in a play and you’re sitting in the audience. An actor enters from stage right and announces that people are idiots. Another actor follows, ranting about how things never work out. A third looks directly at you and says, “You will never amount to anything.” These actors exit and others appear; each with something to say and wanting to be taken seriously. As a mindful member of the audience, you can choose to take them seriously or not. Either way, you’ll remember that this is a play.
Mindfulness of thoughts is a difficult skill that requires consistent practice. At first, it’s best to try it for short periods. Set a timer for five minutes and sit quietly in a non-distracting environment, watching the thoughts that appear in your mind. Some will be innocuous: “I need to go grocery shopping.” Others may feel threatening: “I’m a loser.” As best you can, remind yourself that they’re all thoughts. Instead of believing or getting caught up in them, observe their nature. “This play has some judgmental characters,” you might say to yourself.
Why should you bother with mindfulness of thoughts, when distractions are so readily available? Trying to escape from unpleasant thoughts is difficult and tends to work only temporarily. Over time, the unwanted thoughts become more frequent and intense, and a vicious cycle develops. We try harder to distract ourselves, perhaps with excessive eating, drinking, working, or shopping. These behaviors lead to loneliness, guilt, depression, anxiety, and poor health.
Negative thoughts are a normal part of life. Mindfulness won’t get rid of them. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to be less bothered by our unpleasant thoughts and less controlled by them. People who practice mindfulness of thoughts learn to be unfazed by any thought that comes to mind. They recognize that some thoughts are helpful; others aren’t. They’re more creative, more insightful, and better problem-solvers. They have more positive emotions and feel more socially connected.
So when you find yourself alone with your thoughts, experiment with observing them mindfully and allowing them to come and go. Be kind to yourself about your unpleasant thoughts—everyone has them. As you practice this, your psychological well-being is likely to improve. It’s much healthier than shocking yourself!