Thinking about thinking about thinking... too much!

"The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other" - Jethro Tull
Thinking is good.  Sometimes.
Previously, we discussed the concept of metacognition and defined the term as thinking about thinking.  We concluded that this was not some arcane philosophical exercise but, rather, a useful practice that allows us to identify detrimental thinking habits and correct or eliminate them.

Implied in this approach is a critical concept: that we can change the way we think over time.  Why is this notion so far-fetched? If we can improve in all manner of intellectual and physical domains, why couldn't we improve how we think? In fact, this strategy is being studied and applied in a number of contexts including during the treatment of depression and substance abuse (in these cases, cognitive-behavioral therapies often emphasize metacognitive approaches) and practice may also make perfect for positive thinking.

However, thinking too much isn't always a good thing and, eventually, we must convert thoughts into actions if we will ever accomplish anything. Thus, while thinking about thinking has a time and place, the default  metacognitive skill should be the opposite: not thinking. You hear me? Don't spend too much time thinking or you won't get anywhere!  Of course, feel free to think about the details of any project you're tackling, but avoid ruminating on your problems.

When in doubt, don't think. Do.

Practically, what are some strategies we can use to stop thinking? Here are some rough guidelines for emptying your head of all those annoying thoughts:

1. Be gentle with your brain - Inevitably, thoughts will sneak into your mind. Don't get mad! Don't be impatient with your rambunctious inner voice! Just let it happen and gently try to let the thoughts go. All we need is love, and getting angry with ourselves doesn't do any good. Along those lines, don't get angry with yourself if you get angry with yourself... I know that sounds silly, but it will happen! Just laugh at your brain and move on.

2. Focus on something outside your head - This is a strategy used in traditional meditation all the time: focus on something else. You could listen to your breathing, or do the dishes, or go for a walk, or watch a dog. That's right, a dog.  Hello, dog. Distract yourself from your own thoughts. I've found that focusing on a task that helps someone else is the best way to clear your brain: now you're accomplishing something and are helping another person. If any thoughts creep in, they are likely to be about that someone else, not about yourself, and that just feels good.

3. Censor yourself - There is a great discussion in this post about how our brains are structured to initiate actions (and thoughts). A strategy inspired by these concepts is to simply censor thoughts as they creep in. One could playfully quip "VETO!" when some unpleasant, troubling thought pops in. Just repeat "VETO!" every time until that Homunculus starts to learn! Any phrase will do, just remember guideline #1 above: be gentle (and have fun).

Finally, a little mental training challenge. Tomorrow, for the entire day, play around with not thinking. Use the guidelines above, or invent your own strategies. Just try not to think (warning: it's really hard!).  Instead, do a whole bunch of stuff.  You'll feel good and get a ton done during a day without a ton of useless, distracting thoughts.

Stay Happy!

Thinking about thinking about thinking...

What you thinkin' about?
Take a moment and pause. Chill out. Reflect on yourself.

Think about your thinking. Don't balk - this isn't some new age non-sense. You will not be exposed to Tarot cards. This is really important: how you think defines who you are and what you do.

Pop-quiz! Is your thinking effective? Does the way you think promote progress toward your goals? Does your thinking improve your mood or make you feel anxious or depressed? How often do you think about the feelings of others, walk around in their shoes, empathize? Are you open-minded? Could you be more open-minded? Be honest... (the answer is "yes", by the way. No, I know and I don't care. The answer is "yes".) Finally, and most importantly: do you think you can change the way you think?

Here at The Happy Homunculus, we will be tackling these questions, and many more, with the ultimate goal of improving the way we think. Of course, this goal is built on the presumption that we can change the way we think and, thankfully, evidence is piling up that this is possible. And changing the way we think is simple (but maybe not easy). We can get better at thinking the same way we get better at anything else: through practice!

These concepts are the domain of a scientific and philosophical discipline referred to as metacognition: psycho-jargon for thinking about thinking. The prefix meta is used in this context to mean "about itself" and cognition is, simply, thinking. Thus, metacognition translates to thinking about itself (meaning thinking), or thinking about thinking. Whew!

Metacognition is an umbrella term that can apply to a bevy of topics that include learning, memory, emotions, social interactions, self-control, anxiety, etc. Essentially, anything that is essential to being a functioning, happy, calm, fun, caring and smart person. Metacognition as a science or discipline hopes to study how we think in order to find and apply the thinking strategies that are the "best" and cut out those that run counter to our hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

A tenet of The Happy Homunculus is that bad thinking - poor cognition - is a major, and often under-appreciated, contributor to most of our individual problems (at least in the industrialized world). Modern life challenges us with incredible complexities in terms of learning, planning, working with diverse people, managing stress, and resisting temptations. Our attitudes and assumptions about each of these aspects of our lives will profoundly affect how we behave in the heat of the moment. How you behave in the heat of the moment defines how you perform. Add up all your hot moments, you get your life.

A very recent study examined the relationship between self-control (which is a hallmark of meta-cognitive-ninja skillz) and a number of life outcomes including health and wealth. In this case, 1000 individuals were measured for self-control as children and were tracked through the age of 32:
"[W]e show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control [...] In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background."
Cool! And, there are lot's of other studies that observe similar relationships. However, these findings shouldn't be that surprising. It seems intuitive that if we have better self-control, we can do more things that we couldn't otherwise do: exercise, save money, eat right, etc. So, in order to do all these hard things that are "good for us", we must develop strategies for regulating our thinking to promote self-control. Figuring out how to do that is what The Happy Homunculus lives for! Hopefully, these discussions will be valuable to you as well, dear reader.

Finally, you may be wondering: what the hell is a "homunculus"? You can learn more here, but for now, just think of it as that little voice inside your head...

Until next time, keep thinkin'!

The Homunculus