Wilson: Don’t think twice, it’s all right
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By Timothy D. Wilson
It’s navel gazing time again, that stretch of the year when many of us turn our attention inward and think about how we can improve the way we live our lives. But as we embark on this annual ritual of introspection, we would do well to ask ourselves a simple question: Does it really do any good?
The poet Theodore Roethke had some insight into the matter: “Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse.’’ As a psychologist who conducts research on self-knowledge and happiness, I think Roethke had a point, one that’s supported by a growing body of controlled psychological studies.
Not sure how you feel about a special person in your life? Analyzing the pluses and minuses of the relationship might not be the answer.
In a study I conducted with Dolores Kraft, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Dana Dunn, a social psychologist at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, people in one group were asked to list the reasons their relationship with a romantic partner was going the way it was, and then rate how satisfied they were with the relationship. People in another group were asked to rate their satisfaction without any analysis; they just gave their gut reactions.
It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.
In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the “gut feeling’’ group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.
Self-reflection is especially problematic when we are feeling down. Research by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a clinical psychologist at Yale University, shows that when people are depressed, ruminating on their problems makes things worse.
In one study, mildly depressed college students were asked to spend eight minutes thinking about themselves or to spend the same amount of time thinking about mundane topics like “clouds forming in the sky.’’
People in the first group focused on the negative things in their lives and sunk into a worse mood. People in the other group actually felt better afterward, possibly because their negative self-focus was “turned off’’ by the distraction task.
What about people like police officers and firefighters who witness terrible events? Is it helpful for them to reflect on their experiences?
For years it was believed that emergency workers should undergo a debriefing process to focus on and relive their experiences; the idea was that this would make them feel better and prevent mental health problems down the road. After 9/11, for example, well-meaning counselors flocked to New York to help police officers, firefighters and rescue workers deal with the trauma of what they had seen.
But did it do any good? In an extensive review of the research, a team led by Richard McNally, a clinical psychologist at Harvard, concluded that debriefing procedures have little benefit and might even hurt by interrupting the normal healing process. People often distract themselves from thinking about painful events right after they occur, and this may be better than mentally reliving the events.
What can we do to improve ourselves and feel happier? Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle’s observation that “We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.’’ If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.
Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people — unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.
The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we’re doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.
A study by University of California, Riverside, social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues found that college students instructed to do a few acts of kindness one day a week ended up being happier than a control group of students who received no special instructions.
As the new year begins, then, reach out and help others. If that sounds suspiciously like an old Motown song or like simplistic advice from one of those do-gooder college professors, well, it is. But the fact is that being good to others will ultimately make us kinder, happier people — just so long as we don’t think too much about it.
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