Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 04, 2019

Thinking Enjoyable Thoughts is Hard

by Nick Buttrick
Image of a Young african american woman who looks sad and pensive

Americans are often stereotyped as among the least-reflective people in the world. “Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion,” writes critic A.O. Scott. There’s a longstanding tradition that believes that what’s really important is swift action and pragmatic results, not empty contemplation. In many people’s minds, thinking is just another form of idleness, and instead of spending time with your head in the clouds, you should be out getting things done.

We find that there might be something to this stereotype. In principle, our minds should be among the most potent pleasure-generators we have, far better than any everyday activity. After all, we know our deepest hopes and desires (who better?), and we have the power to conjure up thoughts about whatever we want. When asked to think enjoyable thoughts, we should jump at the chance—and we should succeed. There’s nothing and nobody stopping us from contemplating the most enjoyable things imaginable. Everyday activities, which drag us away from our all-powerful imaginations, shouldn’t be anywhere near as good.

And yet, in study after study, we find that Americans struggle with thinking pleasurable thoughts when instructed to do so, finding the experience mostly “meh.” When given a choice of tasks, research shows that Americans find trying to think for pleasure about as appealing as proofreading or brushing their teeth.  In fact, when presented with a machine that delivers painful electric shocks, a significant proportion of people in our studies choose to shock themselves instead of merely thinking. When forced to think enjoyable thoughts, many Americans flounder.

Is this trouble with generating positive thoughts on command a particularly American problem? On the one hand, Americans do tend to be more action-focused than people from other nations, which might lead them away from the quieter pleasures of thinking. On the other hand, people may struggle to enjoy their thoughts because it’s difficult to force our minds to think about anything for an extended period. Mental control is tricky for most people, regardless of the kind of thought. And, trying to think happy thoughts in particular might backfire, in the same way that trying to feel happy feelings often just makes you feel worse. We therefore set out to learn whether Americans are uniquely bad at retreating into their thoughts, or whether these struggles are common throughout in the world.

With help from social psychologists Rick Klein and Charlie Ebersole, we formed a team of researchers across countries and continents to investigate how much people enjoy thinking fun thoughts and doing fun things. Together, we recruited  over 2,500 research participants from 11 diverse countries: Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan, Malaysia, Portugal, Serbia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, Participants at every site were asked to take part in our study only at a time when they were home alone, with time on their hands. Once they’d confirmed that they were ready and that they’d closed everything on their computers except the program running the study, participants were instructed either to spend 12 minutes enjoying their own thoughts or to find something enjoyable to do alone by themselves (such as reading, browsing the internet, or listening to music). Then participants reported back to us about their experiences and filled out a few personality measures.

What do people enjoy more? In every one of our 11 countries, people had a better time doing something enjoyable than thinking enjoyable thoughts. People didn’t hate thinking enjoyable thoughts (their ratings were just below the neutral point of our rating scale), but people clearly enjoyed doing more than thinking. 

Did some people enjoy thinking more than others? Not only were Americans not any worse at enjoying their thoughts than other nationalities, people seemed to struggle to enjoy their thoughts regardless of the type of person they were. On the whole, people across the globe found thinking for pleasure to be difficult—and not very enjoyable. Thinking for pleasure, as it turns out, is hard. Although some people have slightly better ability to control their thoughts or feel slightly more motivated to fulfill this strange request than others, people on the whole had an easier time doing the mundane things they would normally do when alone—and they generally enjoyed them far more.

In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room, alone.” People have been troubled by—and complained about—the difficulty of enjoying their own thoughts for most of modernity. In this respect, the struggle of Americans to think enjoyably on command marks us as heirs to a rich intellectual tradition.


For Further Reading

Buttrick, N., Choi, H., Wilson, T. D., Oishi, S., Boker, S. M., Gilbert, D. T., Alper, S., Aveyard, M., Cheong, W., Čolić, M. V., Dalgar, I., Doğulu, C., Karabati, S., Kim, E., Knežević, G., Komiya, A., Laclé, C. O., Ambrosio Lage, C., Lazarević, L. B., . . . Wilks, D. C. (2019). Cross-cultural consistency and relativity in the enjoyment of thinking versus doing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(5), e71–e83. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000198

Wilson, T. D., Westgate, E. C., Buttrick, N. R., & Gilbert, D. T. (2019). The mind is its own place: The difficulties and benefits of thinking for pleasure. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 175-221. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2019.05.001

Are you interested in learning more about distributed psychological research? Check out the Psychological Science Accelerator (https://psysciacc.org/), a global network of psychological science laboratories, collaborating to collect psychological data from large-scale international samples.


Nick Buttrick is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Virginia.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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