The Legit Mental Health Benefits of Doing Nothing, According to Science
When we cover the latest wellness news here at EatingWell, we often share little actionable nuggets to hopefully inspire you to make tomorrow a tiny bit healthier than today. Recently, we've dished about the big wellness gains you can score from everything from little healthy habits like drinking another glass of green tea, adding a spoonful of cocoa powder to your oatmeal and eating another serving or two of colorful foods like peaches and peas.
But today, we're here with a refreshing Rx that should be pretty simple to stick with: Nothing. That's right, according to a new study published in the July 22 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we can improve our lives by carving out time to spend totally distraction-free. (That means no smartphone, computer or TV screen.) According to this new study, people who take time to just sit and do nothing actually enjoy it much more than they initially predict—and might also be better at solving problems and at thinking more creatively.
What This Mental Health Study Found
"We tend to think that 'just thinking' or 'just waiting' is boring," Kou Murayama, Ph.D., study co-author and the principal investigator of the Motivation Science Lab at University of Tübingen in Germany tells Healthline. But is it really?
To answer this question, Dr. Murayama and his team ran six experiments on a total of 259 college students from Japan and the United Kingdom. In the first, they asked participants compared:
- How much people guessed they would enjoy just sitting and thinking for 20 minutes (think: meditation-style, or simply putting down their phone and focusing on their thoughts—or nothing), to
- How much they reported enjoying that idle time after experiencing it.
The individuals were not allowed to read, walk, scroll through social media, text a friend, swipe on a dating app or employ any other common time-passers during the 20 minutes.
The other five experiments were similar, but each had slight variations, such as sitting in an empty room, sitting in a dark tent (where they couldn't see anything) and sitting for varying amounts of time. One focused on comparing estimated to actual enjoyment of checking the news during that time instead of just sitting. The group who just sat thought they would enjoy the news-studying time more than the sitting (hey, we get it, idle time can be awkward!), but they appreciated both activities about the same.
Each of the six experiments landed at the same answer to the original question: Sitting and thinking isn't as boring as we might immediately think. Carving out space to unplug from the stress and depressing nature of the news, that anxiety-provoking to-do list or FOMO-inducing social media may benefit your mental health and happiness levels.
"In the modern digital world, it's so easy to 'kill time' when there is free time," Dr. Murayama adds to Healthline. "But it may be a good idea to immerse ourselves in thinking in such a situation."
This is not to say that people found all this thinking time to be remarkably "fun." It was just more enjoyable than they had thought it would be at the outset of the study. And it's worth nothing that certain populations might be more likely to fall into negative thinking patterns when they don't have activities to keep their brains or bodies busy.
Still, we might discover additional benefits from allowing our brains to wander—beyond just enjoying it. Letting your mind wander can lead to more creative thoughts and better problem-solving abilities, according to an April 2020 study in the journal PLOS ONE. If we don't allow moments for quiet reflection time, we might sprint right on past these advantages. Plus, it can feel like a mental and physical recharge to take a mini meditation break amidst a hectic day.
The Bottom Line
This mental health study found that people tend to enjoy time to just sit and allow their thoughts to wander much more than they initially thought. Other research hints to additional gains from this still shift, including less stress, increased energy, enhanced creativity and the ability to land at better resolutions to problems.
If your schedule allows, try blocking out a 10- to 20-minute "meeting" in your calendar. Put your phone in airplane mode, close or step away from your computer and allow your brain to take you where it may. If that feels challenging, consider starting with a walking meditation—bonus points if said walk is near water.
"Every person faces many challenges, stressor and responsibilities on a daily basis. Human beings need to have time to recharge their batteries in order to be productive again," Hanna M. Garza, Ph.D., L.P.C., clinical director for Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso, tells Healthline.