How to Be Happier Without Really Trying: 4 Odd Secrets From Research
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GOOD GOD, WILL YOU SHUT UP?
Sorry. Wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to the voice in my head… Don’t look at me like I’m crazy; you have one too. That Inner Critic.
Sometimes it’s worried and you get play-by-play color commentary on how everything could go wrong. Other times its negativity goes totally metastatic and it’s all you can’t do that, they won’t like you, you should be ashamed, you’re no good. And still other times it’s an impulsive child: Go ahead and eat the whole pizza. Forget work, there’s TV to watch.
So many of our problems and bad behaviors are due to that voice. Anxiety, depression, lashing out, procrastination. Being human means frequent uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. And we’ll do most anything to make them stop or to avoid them altogether. But that just makes things worse, really.
Complying or avoidance means you’re no longer in charge. You just gave the Inner Critic behavioral power of attorney. You’re a puppet. And then we end up saying, “Why don’t I accomplish the things I say I want to?” Or even worse — looking back, when it’s too late — saying, “Why haven’t I accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish in life? And how the heck did I end up here?”
Sometimes it’s easy to understand why people used to believe in demonic possession.
We can take some solace in knowing everyone deals with The Inner Critic. Sadly, we know this because humans have been looking for a solution for millennia. Oddly enough the two best systems we have to cope are both based on ancient traditions. The Stoics and Buddhists were taking a whack at this one (and making headway) long before the year odometer was at 0.
Stoicism begat Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Buddhism begat mindfulness, each taking different angles on dealing with the Chatty Cathy between your ears. CBT grabs the thoughts by the throat and hits them with a rationality baseball bat. Mindfulness thanks the thoughts for stopping by and politely redirects its attention elsewhere.
Obviously there are similar mechanisms at work under the hood for both but we really don’t know what the secret sauce is that makes them effective. Well, maybe not until recently…
I just read something that hit me like a frisbee to the face. But I gotta warn you, it’s gonna seem a little weird at first. Got a second? Good.
Stand up. Walk around the room. While doing that say this sentence a few times: “I cannot walk around this room.” Yes, you do seem stupid right now. Because what you’re saying and what you’re doing are in complete contradiction. But as we’ll find out, it’s looking like that’s where the magic comes from.
A recent study found doing this ridiculous exercise increased pain tolerance by 40%. People were able to keep their hand on a hot, painful-to-the-touch plate nearly twice as long. What’s this mean? A brief reminder that those thoughts in your head aren’t always accurate and don’t have to be obeyed can affect us powerfully. It changes our relationship with the Inner Critic. We can more easily ignore it and do what we set out to do — even when it hurts.
No, it’s not magic. It’s not due to midichlorians or you being a Capricorn or because Mercury is in Gatorade, or whatever. And it’s not the power of positive thinking – in fact, quite the opposite. Nor is this some goofy one-off study. A research review of more than 44 other studies showed similar decoupling effects.
This is part of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Hundreds of studies have shown its effectiveness in a wide range of arenas from depression to procrastination to anxiety. The book is A Liberated Mind and the author is Professor Stephen Hayes, clinical psychologist, originator of ACT, and a guy who is ranked on Google Scholar as one of the top 1500 most cited researchers ever, in all areas of study, living or dead.
It’s still early, this isn’t yet canon, but it’s definitely been validated enough for you to start experimenting with in your mental laboratory. And anything that helps hit the mute button on the Critic is welcome. (We’ve been waiting a few thousand years for more help.)
Let’s get to it…
It’s not the content of your thoughts.
It’s your relationship to your thoughts.
Witnessing the tragedy of 9/11 firsthand, in person, is about as traumatic as it gets. So who do you think was more likely to have PTSD a year later – people who let themselves feel horrified or people who were determined not to be?
Answer? The latter.
We need to acknowledge our thoughts and feel our emotions. A pain and negativity-free life is impossible — and undesirable. Pain is a feature, not a bug. I didn’t say it was fun, but pain shows us what matters and what must be addressed. As Steven says, “You hurt where you care, and you care where you hurt.”
That’s why there’s no easy “off switch” for bad feelings. Try your hardest to shut down the negative and you will turn off the positive too. All or nothing, bubba. Fancy pants research says so. And, as we discussed, avoiding triggers isn’t a good long-term solution either. Avoidance makes you a puppet and inevitably shrinks your world.
We must accept those painful thoughts and emotions as part of life. Acceptance allows us to feel and to deal. The Stoics knew this, as does CBT. One of the most powerful gifts they gave us was showing just how much these unwelcome thoughts can dominate our behavior and that we must accept their existence — but we don’t have to act on them. Huge win for mankind.
Then Stoicism and CBT said we should do “cognitive restructuring.” We need to dispute and correct flawed habit patterns to fix them for good…
But here’s where our new research fits in, that walking-around-saying-you-can’t-walk-around study. Turns out arguing yourself to rationality may not be necessary.
From A Liberated Mind:
Research shows that this part of the CBT approach is not what is powerful about it, and it often doesn’t work as well as learning to accept that we are having unpleasant emotions and thoughts and then working to reduce their role in our lives instead of trying to get rid of them.
You may not need to win an argument with yourself to validate your choices. It’s looking like the secret sauce is changing your relationship to your thoughts and emotions, rather than trying to change their content. That’s the part we want to emphasize and double down on when dealing with the Inner Critic.
CBT exposure therapy makes agoraphobics go to the mall to get over their fear. And it works. But it’s looking like the active ingredient is how the exposure creates that contradiction between thoughts and reality. This rewrites the relationship between you and your Inner Critic (“The voice said I’d die if I went out in public, but here I am, still alive. I’m not taking that voice so seriously anymore.“) Just like walking around the room saying “I can’t walk around this room” does.
So how do we directly target changing that relationship?
What we need to do is “defuse.” Cognitive Fusion is when a thought or feeling hijacks your brain. When you’re lost in thought, bothered by something irrelevant, upsetting yourself when it has absolutely no bearing on the wonderful life around you. You choose imagined threats that exist only in your head to be your reality instead of the actual world around you.
To be fused is to be immersed in a film, emotionally overtaken by the fictional presentation on the screen. Defusion is realizing you’re in a movie theater and that the Jurassic Park dinosaurs do not exist and cannot harm you. With defusion we get distance from our thoughts; we look “at” them, not “from” them. As Steven says, our goal is to “see our thoughts with enough distance that we can choose what we do next, regardless of our mind’s chatter.”
You don’t need to fight the dinosaurs to win and be happy. They’re not real. You can just let them go.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So how do we defuse? That’s next. But I gotta warn you — these exercises (like walking around saying you can’t walk around) can be a bit odd…
Name Your Brain
Okay, so your Inner Critic is at it again: “You’re lazy. You’ll never get anywhere in life.” Instead of sadly agreeing or fighting back, just do the most natural thing when any voice is talking to you. Ask:
“And who is noticing that?”
Because it ain’t you. Not the deliberate-you. You never decided to think that. It just bubbled up. You’re as responsible for that thought as you are for your stomach grumbling. Yeah, your body did it but you didn’t choose to. That’s not the all-knowing, must-be-obeyed voice of God. It’s a mind fart.
So if thoughts are gonna come up without permission, from here on out, that’s somebody else. Give that person a name. Seriously. Steven Hayes calls his mind “George” and I’ve written before about my own bête noire and mental backseat driver, “Lefty.”
From A Liberated Mind:
If your mind has a name, then it is different from “you.” When you listen to someone else, you can choose to agree with what they say or not, and if you don’t want to cause conflict, it’s best not to try to argue the person into agreement with you. That is the posture you want to take with your internal voice.
Your Inner Critic will fight back, of course. But before you react, remember: it’s your relationship to your thoughts that matters, not the content. Agreeing, disagreeing, obeying or resisting all mean you’re giving “George” a vote. You don’t have to. Be polite but firm.
From A Liberated Mind:
…answer back with something like “Thanks for that thought, George. Really, thank you.” If you speak to your mind dismissively, it will continue right on problem-solving. Be sincere. You might want to add, “I really get that you are trying to be of use, so thank you for that. But I’ve got this covered.”
Getting frustrated is just gonna get you wrestling with the Critic. That means you’re fused, and now you’re in an abusive relationship with your own brain. No bueno. Thank them politely — and then go back to the real world.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Maybe naming your organs is too weird for you. Fair enough — but your Inner Critic is still calling you stupid over and over and you’re starting to believe it. This isn’t a problem.
Actually I would encourage you to call yourself stupid over and over…
Just A Word
Go ahead, say it: “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”
One catch: don’t do it three times; you have to say it 50 times. Say that word until it is utterly meaningless to you. Say a word 50 times and it just loses any sort of sense and you realize it is nothing more than sounds. And as Steven says, “You’re going to turn your life over to that?”
Or you can sing it. Or say it backwards. Whatever strips the word of any serious meaning. Whatever defuses it down to what it is: just a thought. A bunch of sounds. Nothing that can harm you or has to dictate your behavior.
If the real Jurassic Park dinosaurs show up and begin consuming your co-workers, I 100% support emotional freak-outs, running and throwing desk chairs. But if it’s just a thought, repeat it until it’s clear that’s all it is.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
Maybe that one works for you. If not, let’s try the one that we know can cause a 40% pain reduction in controlled studies…
Walk around the room saying, “I cannot walk around the room.” Or vary the specifics to get the same effect. Clearly demonstrate to yourself that your thoughts are not reality. Change that relationship.
It doesn’t have to be embarrassing; it just has to be contradictory. If you’re at work, spin a pen around your desk and mumble “I cannot spin this pen.”
Play with it until you find a variation that works for you.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, last one. Some people may find this hopelessly corny but others will see it as deep and profound. And those who see it as corny probably need it the most…
Your Inner Critic is fueled by a lack of compassion for yourself. If we can forgive ourselves, that voice diminishes. But when we lack self-compassion, it’s like giving the Inner Critic a megaphone.
So let’s hit you with a self-compassion defibrillator. Here’s how:
Imagine yourself as a wee toddler. Maybe 4 years old. Take a second to create a vivid mental image of Little You, the very platonic form of adorableness. Now have the Inner Critic’s words come out of their mouth:
“Nobody likes me.”
“I’m no good.”
In their sad little child voice, eyes filled with tears. (This breaks even my cold mechanical heart.)
You’d hug them. You’d tell them that’s not true. That it’s just a stupid thought.
And if you can do that for Little You, why can’t you do that for Big You? You may be bigger, older and perhaps a tiny bit less adorable, but you are no less worthy of your own compassion.
(To learn how to have a long awesome life, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Round up time. And we’ll also learn Jedi-level defusion methods that not only reduce the power of your Inner Critic, but will also help you connect deeply with those you love…
This is how to be happier without really trying:
- It’s not the content of your thoughts, it’s your relationship to your thoughts: It doesn’t matter what the Inner Critic says if you remind yourself not to take them seriously.
- Name Your Brain: You didn’t choose to say, “You’re a terrible person.” Somebody else did. Somebody who, frankly, isn’t always very nice to you and has a shoddy track record for predictions. Why take them at their word? Thank them and move on.
- Just A Word: You can’t call yourself stupid three times. Gotta do it fifty times. At that point you won’t even be sure it’s an English word anymore. It’ll be meaningless. Perhaps because it actually is.
- Contradict: Show yourself your thoughts do not control your behavior and they won’t.
- Little You: You wouldn’t let Little You torment themselves like that. Why is Big You any less deserving of kindness?
Okay, Jedi-level. Seriously, get good with at least one of the techniques above before you try this, otherwise it can backfire. ONLY WIZARDS LEVEL 5 OR GREATER MAY CAST THIS SPELL. But I do want to mention it either way because it contains a very important idea.
Robyn Walser is an ACT practitioner who helps veterans in group therapy. These are men with PTSD, facing the most serious types of judgmental thoughts that you could imagine. I shudder to think what my Inner Critic might be saying if I had killed people. If I had watched friends die and blamed myself.
They desperately needed to defuse these thoughts but as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy. So Robyn did something totally genius and totally gangster. She had each man write his self-judgment on a label and wear it on his chest so everyone in the group could see:
It sent a powerful statement. “I’m not going to let this judgment run my life anymore.” And the men got better. So Steven began trying this with his own groups. He had people name their shame and wear it so all could see. There were many tears. It was powerfully cathartic.
But even more importantly, Steven learned something when people discussed the experience afterward that hadn’t been initially obvious to him.
From A Liberated Mind:
Almost every single person could wear every single badge as their own. A deeply empowering realization thunders in people’s minds and hearts: everyone has the same secrets. Yet we become alone in our shame and self-judgment, not understanding that we’re all on a similar journey.
No, you don’t need to buy labels and sharpies. But with people who care about you, that you feel safe with, sharing your critic’s words can be a powerful experience. You’ll likely realize you’re not alone. That others have felt the same. And that they don’t see your critic’s words as truth — they’re just a thought. A thought that isn’t all that accurate and certainly doesn’t give you the credit or compassion you deserve.
We all have an Inner Critic. And yet we all think no one else does. That no one else suffers, fears or worries like we do. That we’re alone in our pain.
But if you open up and be vulnerable with those who care about you, the craziest thing can happen:
That terrible shame we’re afraid separates us from others can actually bring us closer together.
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