How to Be Happier Without Really Trying: 4 Odd Secrets From Research

How to Be Happier Without Really Trying: 4 Odd Secrets From Research

via Eric Barker


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…

… keep reading the full & original article HERE