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You can do it if you really try: The effects of motivation on thinking for pleasure


People find it difficult to enjoy their own thoughts when asked to do so, but what happens when they are asked to think about whatever they want? Do they find thinking more or less enjoyable? In the present studies, we show that people are more successful in enjoying their thoughts when instructed to do so. We present evidence in support of four reasons why this is: without instructions people do not realize how enjoyable it will be to think for pleasure, they do not realize how personally meaningful it will be to do so, they believe that thinking for pleasure will be effortful, and they believe it would be more worthwhile to engage in planning than to try to enjoy their thoughts. We discuss the practical implications of thinking for pleasure for promoting alternatives to the use of technology.

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  1. 1.

    Interestingly, the American Time Use Survey, administered yearly by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, does not include a category of just thinking. The closest category is one called “relaxing, thinking,” which includes not only times people spend reflecting or fantasizing but also times they are engaged in social interactions, such as “watching wife garden/watching husband cook dinner” (American Time Use Survey Activity Lexicon 2012, p. 35).

  2. 2.

    An exception is Studies 1 and 2 of Wilson et al. (2014), which included a condition in which participants were asked to think about whatever they wanted. There was not a clear comparison condition, however, in which participants were given the general goal of entertaining themselves with their thoughts.

  3. 3.

    Our strategy for inclusion or exclusion of participants in all studies was to adopt the approach that would be least likely to support our hypotheses.

  4. 4.

    We ran another version of the enjoy condition in which participants took their index cards with them and consulted them during the thinking period. This condition was not relevant to the current hypotheses. It was reported by Westgate et al. (2017) in their meta analysis of studies that used “thinking aids” to improve thinking enjoyment.

  5. 5.

    The positive mood index is based on factor analyses of the mood ratings at the outset of the study and right after the time out period, with varimax rotations, and is the average of participants’ ratings of happy, interested, excited, joyful, enthusiastic, and cheerful (Cronbach’s alphas = 0.92 and 0.93). These analyses are adjusted for participants’ initial mood.

  6. 6.

    As one might expect, reported difficultly in concentrating and mind wandering were positively correlated, r(673) = 0.52, p < .001 (collapsed across studies). This is consistent with the view that instructing people to enjoy their thoughts had competing effects: it made it harder for people to concentrate on their thoughts, which lowered enjoyment, but to the extent that people succeeded in concentrating, they experienced less mind wandering and greater enjoyment.

  7. 7.

    Comparing the means in Table 4 to the means in Table 5 suggests that people overestimated how enjoyable it would be to think with no instructions more than they underestimated how enjoyable it would be to try to entertain themselves with their thoughts. It is difficult to make absolute comparisons, however, given that forecasters were not given a detailed description of the methods of each study. The main point is that participants underestimated the relative difference between being given no instructions and being asked to think for pleasure.


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The research reported here was supported by National Science Foundation Grant BCS-1423747. We thank Doug Tannen and Jeramy Spitzer for assistance with Study 2.

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Correspondence to Timothy D. Wilson.

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All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Supplemental materials for the studies reported here can be found at:

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Alahmadi, S., Buttrick, N.R., Gilbert, D.T. et al. You can do it if you really try: The effects of motivation on thinking for pleasure. Motiv Emot 41, 545–561 (2017).

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  • Motivation
  • Emotion regulation
  • Enjoyment of thought
  • Conscious thought
  • Affective forecasting