A week ago, when I was halfway through my daily routine of pretending to enjoy food with less than 20g of sugar per serving, I came across an article in my news feed about how people who think too much tend to be less happy. I immediately rejoiced.
Me: Mom, I found a cool study.
Mom: Can’t we just eat dinner?
Me: It confirms my preexisting biases and everything! I can use it to boost credibility and impose my viewpoint on everyone. The possibilities are endless.
Mom: These mushrooms are good.
… At least I was enthusiastic enough for the both of us. The possibility of a causal relationship between unhappiness and thinking excited me because it seemed like the answer to all my problems would be to just stop thinking about them. Like when I’m attempting to grasp the theory behind a formula or method and simply stop trying to understand the reasoning in favor of just mindlessly doing as I’m told. Works out much better for all of us.
I almost turned to apologize to my cat, Cat, whom I’d long made fun of for spending her days staring at a wall when really she’d been a visionary this entire time.
Then I actually read the article.
The “thinking too much” part doesn’t include all thoughts; specifically, it refers to self-reflection. Psychologist Tasha Eunich found that “people who spent time and energy examining themselves” were “more stressed, depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and they felt less in control of their lives,” contrary to her expectations.
Based on what I’ve been taught in school, I would’ve expected what Eunich had, too. Teachers—mine, at least—used to impress upon us the importance of reflecting with all those post-assignment questions like “what have you gleaned from this godforsaken experience” or “analyze why you turned in this steaming pile of crap” (I may be paraphrasing) that they always made us answer to ensure we were learning from our mistakes or some crazy notion like that. The implication was that the more you thought about things, the better they’d turn out.
However, while this logic does often apply to homework and projects and tangible efforts, it doesn’t work the same way for mental health. I, for example, am an extremely critical person, which isn’t categorically a good or bad trait. Being geared toward improvement is a plus in terms of work performance; I typically just pinpoint and analyze weaknesses and mistakes to improve upon because doing so is efficient. But this mindset is incredibly damaging when I turn it on myself.
The problem is that excessive introspection doesn’t necessarily make a person better understand himself, which is ideal for positive well-being. Perspective matters. Focusing on why situations and troubles came to be hurts our self-perception, thrusts us into a victim mentality, and causes us to fixate on our issues in a cycle of despairing rumination. If, instead, we accept what came before and focus on what our current personal situation is, we can stop our brains from misleading us.
Eunich calls this method “What Not Why.” As in what am I feeling instead of why I’m feeling down. As in what am I doing, rather than why I’m draped across the couch. As in what am I eating, and not why I’m eating a tub of Haagen-Dazs and picking out the chocolate bits as though that level of restraint will be what saves me from diabetes.
Okay, so maybe not the last one, although you can’t deny it would help.
Many years ago, Nicole was born, probably, and she started blogging at nicolesundays.wordpress.com after that. She spends her free time writing to stay in her own good graces, avoiding responsibility, and pursuing the ever-elusive love of her cat, Cat.