I am an over-thinker. Typically I tend to replay my base hits that I think could have been home-runs, whether it is saying something in class or leading a community meeting. I see how things could have gone better, and scheme and re-scheme, before and after. This often carries over into the small details of the day. I find myself too often on the verge of being really frustrated, even with minor setbacks (I have had no internet the past 2 weeks!). Separate and connected to that, I can be prone to being a depressive. Sometimes things can send me spiraling into ruminating purgatory. And I peer at myself anxiously while the darkness finds greater strength from my inquiry.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a positive psychologists I am reading for school, talks about this stuff directly in her book The How of Happiness. She mentions a number of empirically verified strategies that might help arrest over-thinking. Here are the four I liked. I will focus on the first.
Strategy #1: distract, distract, distract
This one may seem silly, but it works. I can quickly descend into ruminating and the only solution is to stop. There is no problem to solve! Here’s a personal intervention story:
Today I woke up late, had a ton to do, but my wife wanted a big breakfast. I figured, “What the hell? I don’t really have time, but it’s her day off, and I want to spend time with her.” She’s also recently stopped being vegan so we were eating bacon! After cooking it, I warmed the oven, put the bacon in, then turned the oven off. A few minutes later, smoke is everywhere. I had turned the stove on full blast instead. I pull out the smoking charred remains of formerly gorgeous bacon. Three alarms in our house go off at once and a familiar scene unfolds: I scramble frantically yanking them down and pulling out their chords and batteries. But it was too late, the fire department had been notified, and we had to call our landlord.
So we sat down to eat our eggs, with the alarm system still going off upstairs (smoke seeped through the vents we share). My wife heroically tried my to make conversation to pull me out of the ruminating funk I was in. I sat listless. I wasn’ t hungry. I was on the verge of irrational tears. Then I thought, distract, distract, distract, and I went to my desk and watched a Churchill movie (The Gathering Storm) for 20 minutes, and the result was complete transformation; I snapped out of it entirely and got to spend some time with Alicia later that day.
I think it is important that the distracting activity be something that is acting on you and your mind. Physical exercise does not work as well for me because it is not interesting enough (unless it is an activity like soccer or rock climbing). According to Lyubomirsky and my own experience, reading takes too much effort and you end up frustrated and re-reading sentences. I think video or audio are the best. I already tend to have an audio lecture series on hand all the time anyway, so this is a great strategy for me
Enlist help to distract you. I think my own friends intuitively know to try to help distract me, but their efforts are often ineffective because they are not properly instructed. They try to get me out of a funk by trying to be interesting or asking questions, but how fun is it to engage a depressive in a bad mood? Instead, I think I would be most helped if they turned on a movie, plopped me down, and left me alone like some comatose octogenarian/infant. I’ll snap out of it in 15-20 minutes as I get absorbed in the movie, and then I’ll want to be productive and turn it off. Friends can also help you turn the TV off once you are better, and thus keep you from simply being lazy.
I have a friend of mine who is smarter than me as well as more prone to depression. I think smart people come to overestimate their ability to think their way out of problems, when they rely on that tactic when it comes to depression, it just makes you more depressed. At some level, you just have to get out and do shit—think about other things and other people. Churchill, a depressive, kept himself incredibly busy not because he was a genius necessarily, but to stave off the “black dog,” what he called his depression. He painted, wrote poetry, laid bricks, etc., because he understood that there is no substitute for activity.
Strategy #2: Setting aside 30 minutes a day to over-think on purpose might seem counter-intuitive, but it gives you space to let the ruminating go because you know you can think about it later. Also, you retrospectively realize how insignificant these setbacks were when you are in a better emotional state. (I have not done this one yet, but it seems worth a try.)
Strategy #3: Talk to a person. I am worried about burdening friends, but I had a great conversation with some people about this issue, so I thought I would include it.
Strategy #4: Take in the big picture.
In the context of reflecting on a couple recent deaths, as well as studying the affects of mortality salience and death reflection on gratitude, as well as the posthumous studies we have been looking at in school, made me put a message up above my desk which reads, “Prepare to die.” It has already been helping me to put things in perspective, which is exactly what Lyubomirsky suggests. She also suggested thinking about astronomy in moments of hopeless rumination; somehow the vastness of space calms people down. I think I might try that too.
Personally, I believe in God and I find that recognizing that the universe is in his capable knowing hands tends to quiet me down. He knows what he is doing and, I believe, his decision to create was not simply good because he did it, but because creation was worth it.
Thinking big helps fight bacon-induced depression.
November 14th, 2012 at 8:29 PM
This hopelessly convoluted rhetoric gives Doctors With Out Boarders flashbacks of breached births from upstate Uganda.
Noooo, that’s not true at all. Charmed as always, squirming in delight at your misfortune, and restlessly pondering the insights. And if Alicia hadn’t been such a Hebrew and allowed you more bacon practice in the past maybe the whole scenario could have been avoided. But then I wouldn’t have had these laughs. I guess give her a copper coin (an Alicia hug) for me. Can your next post be on racism?
November 14th, 2012 at 3:06 PM
I’m struck, reading this, by how we are getting around to rigorous experimental confirmation of a variety of old techniques. I don’t know if this was part of your thinking, but what you’ve put about your desk is a memento mori, a classic late-medieval and early modern spiritual aid. You’re also, I guess, quoting Inigo Montoya.
Thanks for the good advice.
November 14th, 2012 at 3:13 PM
Absolutely. A common critique of positive psychology is that it is primarily just validating the wisdom of grandmothers everywhere, they being a synecdoche for a variety of traditional sources. I think this is in itself a meaningful validation, but we are finding some more surprising things as well.
Yes, Inigo Montoya was likely doing the six-fingered man a favor in exhorting him to reflect and organize his priorities accordingly. : )
November 14th, 2012 at 3:22 PM
That critique wouldn’t, in any case, cut uniquely against positive psych. I have read plenty of pieces summarizing new studies in mainstream psychology (am I remembering rightly that positive-psych people call it “deficit psychology”?), to which my reaction was, “we already knew that.” But the experimental validation is still worthwhile and, as you say, one will also turn up surprises.