How to Be Happier Without Really Trying
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
The voice in his head kept telling him his career was over. That he would never create anything good again. The voice actually got so bad that back in 1979 he started typing up what it was saying to him:
Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again? Am I really just whistling Dixie? I wonder. If I don’t get down to it I’ll never really know. Why dan’t…I trust myself. Really that’s what it’s all about…that and not wanting to go through the agony of creation. AFTER ALL THESE YEARS IT’S JUST AS BAD AS EVER. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damned trying to create.?. Oh, well, the hour commeth and now IS when I’ve got to do it. GET TO IT, FRED. GET TO IT.
Who was the guy going through this torment? Well, if you’re an American born before the turn of the century, he probably helped raise you: it’s Mr. Rogers. Yup, the uber-calm, gentle soul who helped more than a generation of kids learn the value of kindness and love. He had just taken a three-year break from doing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and that voice in his head was telling him he was washed up.
And the voice in your own head is sometimes less of a supportive co-pilot and more like an abusive relationship partner, handcrafting bespoke nightmare scenarios. We all deal with this to some degree, even the serene Mr. Rogers. Heck, I deal with it too. On bad days, it seems like my inner critic wakes up before me and at night he’s drinking black coffee and popping No Doz to keep the commentary going. (The voice in my head has been condemned by the UN General Assembly but still shows no signs of stopping. Sanctions may be in order.) If another person talked to me the way that voice does, I’d fold them like a lawn chair… but with our own inner critic, that’s never an option.
Oh, and if you’re having trouble with constipation, read this next sentence because it will make you poop yourself: that voice and how you handle it is often the key to happiness. Research shows that what you’re thinking about better predicts your happiness than what you’re actually doing. So your inner critic can be a big problem. Not a little problem. A Wal-Mart sized problem.
After the C-tier sci-fi novel that was 2020, we’ve all been through a lot. My mood ring exploded back in November. We’ve felt homesick for another world. And we haven’t had as much support as we’re used to. (Social distancing has turned every public space into an obstacle course.) Emotionally, many of us ain’t exactly the most tightly wrapped package right now and the last thing we need is a disgruntled circus monkey chattering away in our heads.
But we’re gonna fix this. I was recently bitten by a radioactive journal study and I’ve used my new superpowers to find us some solutions. Who will we get them from? Ethan Kross is a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and director of their Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. His new book is “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.”
And he has some answers – easy answers – for how we can get that inner voice under control and become happier. After a very trying year, we’re going to smack ourselves back to our factory settings of joy and calm so we can make 2021 something special.
Let’s get to it…
Your Brain Is A Time Traveler
You say the equivalent of 4000 words to yourself every minute. No, that’s not a typo. Your inner voice speaks faster than a tobacco auctioneer. Assuming you’re awake for 16 hours, your inner voice does the equivalent of 320 State of the Union speeches per day.
But it’s not just a fast talker, it’s also a time traveler, constantly looking back to the past or projecting into the future. And that’s often a great thing. It helps us learn from mistakes, plan for what’s to come, and make better decisions to achieve our goals. And goals are a lot of what that chatter is about, reminding you to stay focused on what feels critical, constantly running mental simulations to try and divine the smartest move to make next.
The voice can come in many forms (when a song is stuck in my head, I like to think of it as my inner voice serenading me). Sometimes it’s a helpful friend offering advice but when we’re stressed it can be a relentless, finger-wagging scold that invents a whole new category of badness.
In recent years, a robust body of new research has demonstrated that when we experience distress, engaging in introspection often does significantly more harm than good. It undermines our performance at work, interferes with our ability to make good decisions, and negatively influences our relationships. It can also promote violence and aggression, contribute to a range of mental disorders, and enhance our risk of becoming physically ill.
We’d love to cut off the inner critic’s mic and use a shepherd’s crook to pull it offstage. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. (I know you don’t like that but this is science and the customer is not always right.) Ethan says we spend almost half our waking life not living in the present, projecting back and forth. We’d certainly be happier if we stayed “in the moment” but that’s not how we’re wired. And so that voice keeps chattering, often negatively, until it seems your soul is going to dribble out your ears.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
But I’m not here to be some alchemist of melancholy. Far from it. I even went to the clickbait extreme of promising you more happiness “without really trying.” And I plan to make good on that. Because Ethan’s research shows you can go a long way to taming that voice with just one word. One.
(No, it’s not “donuts.”)
Say Your Name
No, not randomly. That’d be weird. But let’s take another look at what Mr. Rogers typed to himself, because it actually proves Ethan’s point.
Mr. Rogers’ inner critic is wreaking havoc… until that final sentence. He goes from saying “I” to calling himself “Fred.” And that’s the same point when there’s hope. And action. It’s no coincidence because, believe it or not, referring to yourself in the first person can cause problems, psychologically.
Previous research had indicated that a high usage of first-person-singular pronouns, a phenomenon called I-talk, is a reliable marker of negative emotion. For example, one large study performed in six labs across two countries with close to five thousand participants revealed a robust positive link between I-talk and negative emotion. Another study showed that you can predict future occurrences of depression in people’s medical records by computing the amount of I-talk in their Facebook posts.
And we can leverage this. Ethan did a study where subjects would each have to do a five-minute presentation, on camera. Stressful stuff. After the group prepared what they were going to say, he told half of them to think about their anxieties using “I” and the other half to use their name or other not-first-person pronouns. Then it was time to do their mini-TED Talk with that judgy camera staring at them.
As we predicted, participants who used distanced self-talk reported that they experienced less shame and embarrassment after giving their speech compared with participants who used immersed self-talk. They also ruminated less about their performance afterward.
So a big first step in changing that chatter in your head – and becoming happier – is getting away from using “I.” Yeah, it can seem a little strange at first to use your name when talking to yourself, but there are oodles of benefits.
Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotion… Other experiments have shown that distanced self-talk allows people to make better first impressions, improves performance on stressful problem-solving tasks, and facilitates wise reasoning, just as fly-on-the-wall distancing strategies do. It also promotes rational thinking.
I would say I’m going to do this more often but instead I’ll say: “Eric will do this more often.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Pretty simple, right? But why does this work? And, more importantly, does that lead to other tricks we can use when your name isn’t enough?
Oh c’mon, of course the answer is “yes”…
Get Some Mental Distance
By using your name, you’re forced to step back a bit emotionally — and that’s a very good thing. You’re snatching back control from the inner voice. It’s a shortcut to mindfulness. Distance reduces rumination, makes your brain quieter and leads to many other good thingies.
Researchers at Stanford, for example, linked adopting the perspective of a detached observer with less rumination over time. Across the Atlantic, researchers at Cambridge found that teaching people to “see the big picture” reduced intrusive thinking (the kind that drains executive functions) and avoidance of painful memories…
Don’t mistake this for distraction. Avoidance does work, but only in the short term. The problems are merely delayed. The benefit of distance is you can still deal with the issues but not be overwhelmed by them.
Imagine being in a boxing match. Running away prevents you from getting hit (for now) but you can never win that way. Staying too close to your opponent all the time means they start raining punches down on you. You want to stay in the middle zone where you’re still in the fight but are able to move in to hit and move out to dodge as necessary.
Next time the inner voice tries to lure you deep into its den of evil, you want to cognitively and emotionally step back. Get some distance by broadening your perspective.
To do this, think about how the experience you’re worrying about compares with other adverse events you (or others) have endured, how it fits into the broader scheme of your life and the world, and/or how other people you admire would respond to the same situation.… imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem as you. Think about the advice you’d give that person, and then apply it to yourself.
You can’t silence the voice but you can increase your feeling of control with some distance. Instead of being caught in the center of the maelstrom, grabbed by the ankles and swung around, the issues become something “over there” that you can deal with.
Oh, and you don’t want to do this all the time. Distance dampens all emotion. When the voice is in a good mood, let yourself be immersed. Enjoy the positive. But when it gets cranky, you’re back in the boxing match. Get some distance so you don’t get pummeled.
(For more on the neuroscience of dealing with your inner critic, click here.)
But maybe you’re all emotionally worked up, nerves jangling, and the above feels impossible. It sounds great in theory but when you do it, it just doesn’t help. The voice called for backup and now your adrenaline is pumping. The cognitive cancer has metastasized…
That’s okay. Ethan has another psychological gadget for our Batman utility belt…
Reframe Threats As Challenges
What if you had something everyone wanted and eleven very large men were intent on attacking you to get it? Definitely scary.
But what if I told you this was because you’re playing football? Oh, that’s different… But the same. This is taking the perspective of a challenge vs a threat. And most of what we deal with in life are challenges, not violent threats. (Dealing with true violent threats from eleven large men is beyond the scope of this post. Buy a taser.)
And if you’re a good football player, it’s even less of a threat – it’s fun. This is a different way of getting distance: reframing. When we can’t zoom out on our problems because of the mind-frying mania of emotions, we can still shift our perspective by changing threats to challenges. How? Put that time traveling brain to good use by reminding yourself of similar situations you’ve effectively dealt with in the past. This restores your feeling of distance and control.
Some might say: But what about that adrenaline? I’m vibrating like a massage wand over here. It’s hard to think straight.
Time for a dollar store lesson in physiology. Evolution is powerful, and by that I mean efficient, and by that I mean lazy. You don’t have a hormone for every feeling under the sun. Stress hormones are the same whether they’re making you feel excited or anxious. Whether your brain experiences them as one or the other is a matter of interpretation. That’s why they’re referred to as “fight or flight” hormones. And I’m telling you to choose fight. No, don’t punch anyone – accept the challenge. Reinterpret that flood of adrenaline as a helpful thing.
…remind yourself that your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high-stress conditions. In other words, tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms are there not to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.
That’s not stress or awfulness coursing through your veins. Heck no, it’s your well-prepared body rising to the occasion and morphing you into a problem-crushing Tyrannosaurus.
The hormones are the same. All you need to do is change the story you’re telling yourself. And don’t use “I.”
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
The voice has been tamed. Let’s round everything up and…
Wait. Doesn’t talking to other people help with problems like this? Sorry, pandemic-brain has me going all solipsistic. Alright, let’s round everything up and then we’ll cover the right way – and the wrong way – to reach out to others for support…
This is how to be happier without really trying:
- Your brain is a time traveler: It projects into the past and future constantly and this can be an express ticket to regret and anxiety. Counteract it with mental distance to regain control.
- Say your name: “I” creates problems. Eric thinks Eric should talk to Eric using “Eric.”
- Get some mental distance: You can’t make the issue go away but you can broaden your perspective. A tablespoon of salt in a glass of water tastes awful, but a tablespoon of salt in a lake isn’t even noticeable.
- Reframe: Your body often can’t tell anxiety from excitement so convert threats to challenges by reinterpreting your feelings.
Everybody always says you should talk to other people to cope with your problems. Let me bring a few ants to that picnic. No doubt, talking to others can help but it can also make things worse. Ethan mentions what is called the “co-rumination trap” — when you discuss your problems and your friend ends up amplifying them. You recruited a pyromaniac to put out the fire.
But there’s a solution. You don’t need people to help. Nope… You need the right people to help. Before you open up, take a second to think about who would be most helpful here. Do you need to vent? Do you need support? Actionable advice? You want to pick the right person for the job.
Finding the right people to talk to, those who are skilled at satisfying both your emotional and your cognitive needs, is the first step to leveraging the power of others. Depending on the domain in which you’re experiencing chatter, different people will be uniquely equipped to do this. While a colleague may be skilled at advising you on work problems, your partner may be better suited to advising you on interpersonal dilemmas.
Having the right people in your life makes all the difference. And for the past year, we’ve all been a bit starved of that.
I hope this has been an entertaining read but, more importantly, I want you to be happier. So please make an effort to actually do the above when your inner critic runs rampant. (Given how prone humans are to procrastination maybe it’s a good thing we don’t live forever.)
Life can be pretty awesome when you’re not constantly thinking about it. When you’re experiencing it. Engaging with it. Living it. Mr. Rogers didn’t give in to his inner critic. After he referred to himself as “Fred” he went on to make children happy for 22 more years. We may need a bit more mental distance but we’ve had just about enough distance from one another.
Soon we’ll be back to normal. Soon we’ll be back with all our friends as we were before the pandemic. The chatter will die down. The inner critic will be in a better mood once we can spend more time with those we love. It’ll be nice to hear more voices from outside our own heads. I hope having my voice in your head has helped a little. And so I ask:
Won’t you be my neighbor?
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