Thinking Yourself further into Happiness

So you’ve started to experiment with thinking yourself into happiness. Here’s some more to consider: Let’s say you’re at the step of noticing your thoughts – not a small feat. You’re beginning to develop what Freud called the observing ego, the capacity to observe the inner workings of your own mind. You notice thoughts bubble up into your consciousness and allow them to float on through, untethered, proverbial leaves floating downstream on the current as you watch, rooted to the bank.

Huh,” you think to yourself, “there goes another one.” At this point, you have some choices. You can continue to watch the thought bob and weave its way downstream and let it go. Or you can pay closer attention to the content of the thought and decide whether you’d like to do something with it. The latter point might be something that a cognitively trained therapist would encourage. When you notice a negative thought, you can explore evidence that supports it, as well as evidence that counters it. When you wrangle with a thought in this kind of a logical way, you might often find that what you thought was cold, hard fact was perhaps not quite so cut and dried. Probably you were being too hard on yourself. Or on someone else. When expectations, biases, assumptions, and the like join forces, they often skew thoughts in an unrealistic way. These skewed thoughts lead to skewed emotions, and then you’re really off to the races, or to feeling badly, as it were. There are also all kinds of common cognitive distortions that muddy up everyone’s thinking now and then. Perhaps you’ve heard of “catastrophizing,” “black and white thinking,” or “overgeneralization.”

People never listen to me.

My life is over. I have no future.

No one has ever understood how I feel.

Thinking patterns like these also contribute to feeling depressed. Cognitive therapists have shown that refuting them can lead to feeling better. But what about the other fork in the road? What about letting the thought go, without judging it, without identifying with it, without becoming attached to it? Traveling that path can also help you to feel better, through changing your relationship with your thoughts. As human beings, we can get pretty attached to our thoughts. We think a thought, and automatically believe it’s true with a capital T. We take our thoughts to be prima facie evidence that we are wonderful, awful, doomed, blessed – pick your adjective. Or we equate our thoughts with our sense of self. I am my thoughts. When we get some distance from our thoughts and take up the perspective that just thinking a thought doesn’t mean it’s true, we gain some measure of freedom. Our thoughts don’t have to dictate who we are, and they don’t have to dictate how we feel.

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