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How Do You Really Feel About Having Time to Think?

New research suggests that you may like reflecting more than you imagine.

Key points

  • A recent study found that people believe that they won’t feel as satisfied using free moments for contemplation as they do in reality.
  • Due to this miscalculation, the people in the study tended to prefer reading the news rather than reflecting.
  • The researchers note that our tendency to misjudge the satisfaction of reflecting could impact our choice to direct our energy outward instead.
Eric W./Pexels
Source: Eric W./Pexels

If I were to ask you whether you’ve ever thought about how much satisfaction you get out of various sorts of things you do, I’m virtually certain you’d say something like “absolutely.” For example, when you think about the act of hugging your partner or a friend, playing with a pet, exercising, watching a suspenseful movie, working, eating your favorite dinner, or reading a book by a beloved author, you likely know how you feel about them. And if these actions don’t bring up a clear feeling for you, still others (e.g., having sex, giving a speech, paying bills, flying in an airplane, shopping), probably would. But what about the act of contemplating? How do you feel about that?

A study examined this question and how it's related to the choices people make when they don’t have anything else to do but pause and wait for a period of time. As the study’s researchers highlighted, it’s well worth our time to address this issue; amid everyday life, we often have the option to stop and reflect, or we could decide to focus on something outside of ourselves such as a computer game, the news, emails, or social media.

Across a series of studies, the research team examined how people expected to feel if they sat and simply engaged in thought and how this lined up against how people actually wound up feeling. The researchers also explored how people's expectations of how they would feel were connected to their decision to lean toward either reflecting or reading news online. The results revealed a tendency for people to underrate how satisfying and absorbing it would feel to stop and reflect. In other words, they got more out of it than they anticipated. As the investigators made clear, it’s not to say that slowing down and thinking was delightful for folks, but rather that the reality of the experience was better than what they had envisioned. In light of this, it makes sense that people also tended to favor checking out the news instead of pondering.

Of course, as the researchers correctly stated, there’s more work to be done to advance knowledge on this topic. For instance, it would be helpful to illuminate more about precisely why people tend to make this sort of miscalculation, how much longer such a misjudgment lasts (beyond the 20 minutes examined in this research), and what types of thoughts feel more fruitful and fulfilling. Having said that, we can arguably still draw something useful from these findings in the meantime. For instance, perhaps the next time you’re waiting somewhere, whether it’s in line at a store, on the phone, on a train, in your car, or anywhere else, see if you can keep yourself from pulling out your phone or tablet (as handy as they certainly are!) and see what happens if you give yourself the chance to turn inward and reflect. You might like it more than you think.


Hatano, A., Ogulmus, C., Shigemasu, H., & Murayama, K. (2022). Thinking about thinking: People underestimate how enjoyable and engaging just waiting is. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 151(12), 3213–3229.