Skip to main content

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  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.

References

  1. Alter, A. (2017). Irresistable: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  2. American Time Use Survey Activity Lexicon. (2012). Retrieved March 2, 2015 from: http://www.bls.gov/tus/lexiconwex2012.pdf.

  3. Buttrick, N. R., Choi, H., Wilson, T. D., Oishi, S., Boker, S. M., Wilks, D. C. (2017). Thinking versus doing for enjoyment: A cross-cultural replication. Under editorial review.

  4. Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. (2015). Retrieved July 14, 2016 from: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/census_researchreport.pdf.

  6. Dr. Seuss (1975). Oh, the THINKS you can think! New York: Random House.

  7. Franklin, M. S., Mrazek, M. D., Anderson, C. L., Smallwood, J., Kingstone, A., & Schooler, J. (2013). The silver lining of a mind in the clouds: Interesting musings are associated with positive mood while mind-wandering. Frontiers in Psychology: Perception Science, 4, 583. 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00583.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 317, 1351–1354.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Gross, J. J., Richards, J. M., & John, O. P. (2006). Emotion regulation in everyday life. In D. K. Snyder, J. A. Simpson & J. N. Hugues (Eds.), Emotion regulation in couples and families: Pathways to dysfunction and health (pp. 13–35). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/11468-001.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  10. Huntsinger, J. R., Isbell, L. M., & Clore, G. L. (2014). The affective control of thought: Malleable, not fixed. Psychological Review, 121, 600–618. doi:10.1037/a0037669.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Koole, S. L. (2009). The psychology of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 4–41. doi:10.1080/02699930802619031.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 220–228. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807–815.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Nielsen Total Audience Report. (2016). The Nielsen Company. Retrieved September 23, 2016 from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/the-total-audience-report-q1-2016.html.

  16. Pennebaker, J. W., Chung, C. K., Ireland, M., Gonzales, A., & Booth, R. J. (2007). The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2007. [Software manual]. Austin, TX (www.liwc.net)

  17. Powers, W. (2010). Hamlet’s Blackberry. New York: Harper.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Schooler, J. W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). The pursuit and monitoring of happiness can be self-defeating. In J. Carrillo & I. Brocas (Eds.), Psychology and economics (pp. 41–70). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Smith, E. N., & Frank, M. C. (2015). Replication of “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind; Study 8” by Wilson et al. (2014, Science). Unpublished manuscript, Stanford University.

  20. Solomon, I. D. (2001). Thomas Edison: The Fort Meyers Connection. Charleston: Arcadia.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Song, X., & Wang, X. (2012). Mind wandering in Chinese daily lives–an experience sampling study. PLoS ONE, 7, e44423. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044423.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. Tamir, M. (2016). Why do people regulate their emotions? A taxonomy of motives in emotion regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20, 199–222.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. Thoreau, H. D. (2009). Walden. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing (reprint of 1854 ed.).

  24. Wayne, T. (2016). The end of reflection. The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2016 from: http://nyti.ms/21e8i51.

  25. Westgate, E. C., & Wilson, T. D. (2017). Boring thoughts and bored minds: The MAC model of boredom and cognitive engagement. Manuscript submitted for publication.

  26. Westgate, E. C., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2017). With a little help for our thoughts: Making it easier to think for pleasure. Emotion. doi:10.1037/emo0000278.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 345–411). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Wilson, T. D., Raza, S., Buttrick, N. R., & Gilbert, D. T. (2017). Unpublished raw data, University of Virginia.

  29. Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C. L., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345, 75–77.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  30. Wilson, T. D., Westgate, E. C., Buttrick, N. R., & Gilbert, D. T. (2017). Unpublished raw data, University of Virginia.

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy D. Wilson.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

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.

Informed consent

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

Additional information

Supplemental materials for the studies reported here can be found at: https://osf.io/6bsh2/?view_only=12a38c0ccc9741fca3856df01d0f6014.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9625-7

Download citation

Keywords

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