Shock for inner peace

As a busy year draws to an end it’s worth considering why so many of us struggle to find time to set aside distractions and “stop and think”.

Yes, pressures hit us continually during domestic life and work. But even during our holiday wind down, we seem to find it equally hard to set aside time for ourselves.

The truth is, we simply don’t like to. We, as a species, don’t want to sit and relax on our own without TV, music, gorgeous bodies to glare at on the beach, computers, mobiles and other distractions.

A very alarming new study by researchers from the University of Virginia and other US universities, published in the respected journal Science, says: “In 11 ­studies we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending six-to-15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

From years of experience in the corporate world I’m not surprised. I know many of those I interviewed would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly. Many told me they couldn’t bare to lie on a beach or sit still. Men are the worst offenders. Sixty-seven per cent of male participants “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” writes psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. One in four women shocked themselves.

One poor man administered 190 shocks to himself in 15 minutes. He obviously enjoyed it or else he simply couldn’t stand himself.

So why is sitting alone without distraction more painful than physical pain? The authors ponder: “When left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles.”

We all have a nasty inner voice. When given 100 compliments we focus on one negative and use it to reinforce our failings. No wonder we want to distract our minds. The solution is a psychological term, metacognitive awareness: thinking about one’s thinking.

Very briefly, the basis is that there’s a silent witness in our head listening to our thoughts. By training the witness to become aware of the negative self-talk (through therapy or meditation), the witness can learn to butt in and turn down the voice so we can sit peacefully and have a mental holiday from time-to-time.

It’s a long journey to metacognition. I began it many years ago. Not easy. But all of us urgently need to find inner peace before as a society we literally “shock” ourselves to death.

Twitter @OstrowRuth

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