So I stumbled across this study about six weeks ago, and ever since I’ve been mentioning it in my keynote presentations. I included then link so that you’d know I wasn’t making this up, but I also don’t expect you to go and read the BBC article I’ve linked to, so here’s the summary:
A researcher in England asked 42 people to sit alone in a white-walled room for 15 minutes. They were given no technology, no newspapers, nothing fun to stare at, just them with their own thoughts – and the ability to shock themselves on the ankle if they so chose. All of these people had experienced the shock prior to the experiment, and all of them had said they would actually pay money to avoid feeling that shock again.
And guess what? Eighteen of those 42 people chose to give themselves at least one shock during their fifteen minutes of enforced alone time. That’s 43%, or almost half. In other words, when faced with the prospect of sitting idle with nothing else to do, almost half of us would rather experience pain than be alone with our thoughts.
We can’t possibly have always been this way. Our ancient ancestors surely didn’t stick their hand in a fire whenever they had nothing else to do. You know why? Because they always had nothing to do. Before electricity, the hours after the sun set were largely devoted to staring at the sky. That was the only movie playing.
However, our technological advancement has brought with it an infinite number of ways to mentally occupy ourselves – so many and so varied, in fact, that it has become our default situation. While our ancestors may have complained about boredom, many of us are actually scared of it, and we’ll do anything (including shocking ourselves) to keep from having to deal with it.
And at the same time, many of us feel overwhelmed – too many things to do, too many distractions, not enough hours in the day. Part of that might be a genuine consequence of the fast-paced world that we’ve built, but part of it could just as easily be because we’ve become frightened of slowing down.
This holiday season, you’ll almost certainly have a chance to figure out if that’s true for you. You’ll be expected to spend time with family. You won’t have quite as much work to do. Someone will probably ask you what you envision 2018 looking like for you, which will encourage you to ponder the future if you haven’t thought to do so yourself. You’ll have every excuse in the world to slow down, disconnect, and spend some time thinking about whatever you feel like thinking about.
So pay attention to how you spend these holidays. Odds are you’ll do what most of us do with most of our free time – you’ll try to fill it in any way you can. Books, movies, catching up on household chores, cooking, etc. Hopefully some of those things will give you pleasure. Hopefully some of them will feel relaxing.
But if you end the holidays as harried and stressed as you normally feel, then it means you didn’t spend enough time alone with your own thoughts. That’s the only way we ever collect ourselves, evaluate if we’re on the path we really want to be on, and give ourselves the mental respite we all need to keep from burning out. If you don’t give that to yourself, is it because you truly didn’t have the time? Or is it because you’re actually scared of it?
Basically, I hope you’re in the half of people who don’t feel compelled to shock themselves whenever the power goes out. Partially because it’s healthier, but also because it’s impossible to administer an electric shock when there’s no power.
Enjoy the holidays!