Are You Any Good at “Thinking for Pleasure”?

We're all terrified of being alone with our own thoughts, apparently

A man sitting alone on the beach.
This doesn't have to be so bad, friends.
Steve Parsons - PA Images / Contributor

One of those sidewalk Instagram interviewers recently asked a slew of 20-somethings if they feared anything more than being alone with their own thoughts. Every single respondee gave a resounding, terrified “No!” before one man, after chewing on it for a moment, replied: “Bears.”

Fear of loneliness — which goes by a surprising number of names: autophobia, isolophobia, eremophobia, monophobia — is distinct from loneliness itself. It’s the sense that no matter where you are (out in public, or within the comfort of your own home), you should take pains to make sure you don’t end up alone. After all, that’s when the dread begins to pump in: the anxiety, the feelings of inadequacy, the over-scrutinizing.

We’ve developed an almost rote tendency to make sure we don’t have to sit alone with our own thoughts. Remember at the beginning of Lady Bird, when Saoirse Ronan’s character tries to put on the radio the second she and her mother, each of them crying, have finished The Grapes of Wrath audiobook? Laurie Metcalf’s character slaps her hand away, muttering “Hey, you know, let’s just sit with what we heard?”

Sitting in quiet introspection’s hard, though. It’s is difficult enough with a fictitious prompt, with company in the car. But how about when those prompts — sometimes as cruel as they are random — are coming from your brain? And you’re utterly alone?

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This is where one’s ability to “think for pleasure” can prove critical. Despite our unwillingness to give it the old college try (a recent study confirmed most of us don’t know how to turn being alone with our thoughts into a “meaningful and pleasant experience”), solitude is actually a very good idea.

According to a recent profile by The Washington Post, “Spending time alone for just 15 minutes has a deactivating effect on our mood…it reduces high-energy emotions, both positive and negative, such as anxiety, anger and excitement. [It helps us feel] calmer and more peaceful.”

That’s valuable stuff, and especially when you consider how much we spend on the multi-billion meditation market. All those apps and classes are great, but thinking for pleasure could put you on the pathway to zen, too — and it’s completely free.

While this enterprise can a little hopeless (when given the choice, people invariably elect to do something in solitude…little wonder end-of-year podcast lists have gotten so robust) know that when we plan on enjoying our thoughts, we actually do end up enjoying them. It’s true.

A potentially helpful synonym to thinking for pleasure? “Active daydreaming.” Go out of your way, 15 minutes a day, to think about something that makes you happy. The rise-and-grind manifesters would probably encourage you to imagine yourself starting a company or finishing a marathon, and that’s fine, if that’s your thing, but you could also sit there and remember a nice day on vacation, or picture an old friend.

The less rules the better. In turn, thinking will feel like less of a chore. And being alone with your thoughts, hopefully, will start to feel like less of a nightmare.

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