How Sitting and Letting Your Mind Wander Can Be Beneficial

Ray Williams
4 min readMar 29, 2024

Have you ever taken the time alone to sit and think about nothing in particular? Research now concludes that letting your mind wander is good for your well-being and creativity.

Solitude is inevitable. Adults in the UK and US spend around one-third of their waking lives alone and that increases as we get older. In many places, we live alone in greater proportions than ever before. A recent survey of 75 countries shows that 17 have more than 25 per cent solo households.

As social creatures, research has historically pointed us away from time alone. But recently, more people are spending time away from the crowd, and even crave it. Now, we have evidence as to why alone time can feel so good and may in fact be vital to your health and well-being.A fascinating new study by A. Hatano and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, sheds light on our tendency to undervalue the sheer enjoyment and engagement of introspection.

Participants in the first study were placed in a room devoid of external distractions for a full twenty minutes. Their task? To sit and think. Beforehand, they predicted how enjoyable and interesting this waiting period would be. Interestingly, their post-experience reflections revealed a striking contrast: the actual enjoyment, engagement, and interest levels were notably higher than anticipated, with boredom taking a backseat.

In a subsequent study, participants were given a choice between two conditions: a “thinking only” session or a ‘news checking’ session, with the latter allowing them to browse news sites. Despite their initial preference for news checking, believing it to be more enjoyable, those in the thinking-only group relished their experience far more than they expected. This stark contrast highlights a societal inclination to dodge solitary thought, misled by our assumptions of its dullness.

But the narrative doesn’t end here. The researchers point out a crucial avenue for future exploration: understanding the texture and nuances of the experience of “just thinking.” Why do we shy away from solitary reflection? Is it merely a misjudgment of its pleasantness, a fear of boredom, or concerns about triggering anxiety or intrusive thoughts?

A recent study suggests that our tendency to avoid being alone with our thoughts is partly because “we tend to underestimate the value of thinking,” said one of the study’s authors, Kou Murayama, a psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Dr. Murayama and his colleagues asked adults first to predict how much they would like sitting in a quiet room alone and then actually had them do it for 20 minutes. To their surprise, the participants enjoyed the experience more than expected. These questions open doors to more profound insights into our relationship with our minds, beckoning further investigation into this compelling psychological landscape.

Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, and his colleagues found that people come up with more creative solutions to problems after taking a break from trying to solve them and doing an undemanding task while daydreaming. When they did other things during that break — either sat quietly or focused on a different difficult task — or when they did not take a break at all, problem-solving was more difficult. “Mind wondering’ may be an opportunity to develop novel, different approaches you hadn’t thought of before,” he said.

The practice of letting your mind wander has been portrayed as “doing nothing,” thanks in part to Olga Mecking’s 2020 book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. But if trying to squeeze time to do nothing into an already packed schedule sounds more stressful than soothing, fear not. According to Erik Dane, an associate professor of organizational behavior in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, doing nothing doesn’t necessarily mean simply staring out the window (although it can).

“From a biological and a psychological standpoint, we’re rarely doing nothing,” Dane said. He and other experts believe that simply slowing down enough to allow your mind to wander and reflect can be all the “nothingness” you need to feel less harried.

According to Moshe Bar, a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and the author of Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity, mind-wandering is essential to creativity and problem-solving. “This is how good ideas are born,” he said. When we reflect on memories and imagine what could have happened or how a particular scenario could have played out, our brains store this information the same way they do an authentic experience. And just as our experiences inform our future decisions and ideas, so can these simulations, Bar said.

This is borne out by research. According to a 2017 metastudy, mind-wandering enhances creativity and may play a significant part in problem-solving and learning. Dane and his colleagues found that, for professionals, “problem-oriented daydreaming,” or conjuring thoughts that pertained in some way to the challenges they faced, could be particularly effective in helping them solve problems.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others