You spend a lot of time in your head, thinking about stuff. You wonder if you’ll finish painting the deck, you try to remember your colleague’s name, you fantasize about winning an academy award, you consider how best to ask your boss for a raise. You spend so much time rooting around the attic of thought, in fact, that it might be fair to say that you are your thoughts. I don’t mean to get weirdly metaphysical on you so early in the writing, but whatever “you” are, it is largely about your mental processes.
For as familiar as you are with your own thoughts—your own values, choices, temptations, and fantasies—I wonder if you have ever stopped to consider how thinking works. I mean, I know you have a lot of experience thinking. You have a running commentary on everything. “Are these jeans too tight?” “Hey, she has a widow’s peak!” “Do adults have favorite colors, or only kids?” “To divide, do I take the top number from the bottom, or the bottom from the top?” Your entire life can seem like a cascade of commentary that you have come to know as thinking.
Recently, thinking has been getting a lot of press. Not so long ago, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that consumers act irrationally under certain circumstances. Or you might be reminded that of old adage “I wasn’t thinking” which explains every lapse in attention and bad judgment ever to walk the Earth. Also, there has been recent enthusiasm for psychologist John Haidt’s metaphor of an elephant and a rider. The big strong elephant represents all our genetic and situational urges and that teeny tiny rider is the amount of control we have.
It makes sense, the more you know about how your thinking works, the more you can use your thoughts like a tool.
Before I get into “thinking 101” let me just offer a comparison of my own. I know nothing about the inner working of automobiles. I was raised by two psychologists and the various widgets and fluids and mechanical goings-on under the hood were not part of my education. As a result, I am sometimes in awkward situations where I am tempted to pretend having more facility with engines than I actually do. A guy might say to me—pointing to a car driving down the road—“what a beauty, five point oh!” Is he rating the car on a 1-10 scale, as my parents might have research participants rate their own emotions? I bring this up only to illustrate that because of my limited vocabulary and understanding of cars I cannot do much with them. I don’t know how to fix them, or change the oil, or many of the small tasks that would help my cars live longer, healthier lives. Now, imagine that you didn’t have a sophisticated vocabulary for all different types of thinking. Imagine how much more you could do if you knew more about your own thoughts.
Bookstores are full of titles about how the mind works. There are books on consciousness, and on the unconscious, there are those about logic, and those about how we systematically make errors in our logic. I am not going to pretend that I can give you a comprehensive education on every type of thinking. Your thinking involves attention, and memory, and personal preferences. Your thinking interacts with your emotions and can be affected by others. Even so, I’d like to present three types of everyday thinking that you engage in, that has been researched and understood by psychologists, and which can be crucial in success at home and at work. They are: categorical thinking, comparisons, and creative thinking.
It’s no accident that your local grocery store sorts its products by type. There is a section for dairy, for meat, for fruits and vegetables, and for other foods. Compartmentalizing food in this way helps shoppers locate it. In exactly the same way, you have the natural tendency to lump stuff together by similar traits. You organize your world with all sorts of useful categories: children, weekdays, rotten, expensive, birds, mine. These categories help you make sense of the world.
Stuff gets sorted into categories based on their particular qualities. Let’s take the example of children. You have a mental category for humans that is defined by a few qualities such as young, small, and immature. This category guides your behavior. You don’t meet a child and ask her for tax advice any more than you would play “peek-a-boo” with a new colleague at work. Where thinking is concerned, the more “typical” a thing is, the easier it is to classify as a member of a certain category. A dimpled little seven-year-old girl with pigtails is quintessentially a child. What’s more, it doesn’t really matter if she speaks French or Japanese, she is still identifiable as a child. But these categories also have “fuzzy boundaries,” meaning that it can be troublesome to identify less typical examples. Take, for instance, a sixteen-year-old who has a tattoo tells you he is taking a course at the local community college. He is harder to pin down as a “child” and so you are likely to take more time figuring out how to appropriately interact with him.
It is here, in understanding how categories work, that you can be more effective. Categories are useful because they provide some immediate guidelines for how to behave. When you visit a friend’s house you don’t try to sit on their television or in their kitchen sink because you have sophisticated categories for furniture. Occasionally, however, this propensity for classifying is not so helpful. We often categorize people, for example, based on national origin or ethnicity. But these stereotypes are often unhelpful because they feel to appreciate the tremendous amount of variation there is within a category. Just as teenagers are a special instance of children, it is easy to discover that people do not conform to the “typical” view you hold. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been overseas and had locals criticize Americans for “not traveling” (Note: I am an American and am traveling when they scold me).
So, next time you catch yourself offering an opinion on Millennials, or weighing in on “how women are,” or discussing “Germans,” you should bear this mind. It is natural to think of broad categories. It is helpful to understand that a hotel is a not a house and that a tiger is not a housecat. When applied to people, however, you can get further by paying attention to the individual in front of you.
Another way our minds naturally work is by making comparisons. In fact, comparison thinking is one of the concepts in psychology that has trickled down into the popular imagination. For example, when I discuss research on the link between money and happiness, many people are quick to point out the role of comparisons. If your neighbor has more than you do, the common wisdom holds, then you will be unhappy. Although this isn’t true, there is one element that is worth emphasizing: the mind is constantly making comparisons. Some of these are comparisons with others. Some, however, are comparisons with yourself, as in a student who wants to score better on the final than on the mid-term. We also engage in a type of comparison known as “counterfactual thinking.” This is comparing reality to an imaginary what-might-have-been. When a person misses her flight by three minutes, for example, she is tempted to mental compare with an alternate reality in which she could have just made slightly different choices and not missed her flight. By better understanding the types of comparisons your mind naturally makes, the better you will be at making those that are helpful.
Let’s start with the most familiar type: social comparison. This is the keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ phenomenon that everyone is so bent out of shape about. If there are have’s and have not’s it is certain to lead to misery. Only, that’s not the whole story. Psychologists point out that we can make both “upward” and “downward” comparisons, and that either type can give us a mental boost. A downward comparison is one made at someone who is relatively inferior in some sense. I use downward comparison, for example, when I evaluate my own ability to draw. Rather than comparing myself to Picasso or DaVinci, I prefer to compare down to a couple of my nieces who are barely out of diapers and who are as likely to eat their pencil as to draw with it. Similarly, upward comparison can be motivating. People always act as if people who are in a relatively superior position—those who drive Ferraris or have an advanced degree—will make us miserable. In fact, upward comparison can often be inspiring, as in the case of people with cancer who witness others who are treated successfully. “that could be me!” they think to themselves.
And there’s the rub: If you catch yourself feeling glum because someone else is more physically fit, has more money, or is better educated, you don’t need to dwell on it. If anything, those healthy, rich, smarty pants are proof that we can all prioritize our values and make improvements with effort. This isn’t to say that you’ll be a billionaire if you try, or that you’ll have washboard abs. But somewhere between a billion dollars and your current net worth is where you can end up. Somewhere between your current stomach and a Hollywood stomach. And it’s precisely those comparisons that can help you articulate your ideal and keep track of the progress you make.
In the end, it is not that upwards or downwards comparisons leave us unhappy. It is, instead, the strategic use of each that can make us happy. If you see someone who has beaten cancer, or gotten a promotion, or maintained their fitness in middle age then you can say to yourself, “Hey! Maybe if they can do it, there is hope for me. Maybe I can also do it!” By remembering to strategically use these two types of comparison you can avoid stepping in the emotional holes that act as an obstacle to success.
Then final type of thinking I’d like to discuss is creative thinking. It is tempting to think of creativity as a trait that people have, like blonde hair or extroversion. The truth is, however, that creativity can, in part, be learned. Creativity is a style of thinking marked by novelty and originality. Let me give you a quick example: I know a brilliant academic; a man known for being creative and highly productive. One day, I attended a talk at the university in a relatively small room. It was a popular presentation and all the chairs were quickly filled. The scholar I mentioned arrived a bit late and was dismayed that he didn’t have anywhere to sit. Looking around, his eyes fell on the overflowing garbage can in the corner. He picked it up, turned it over, and quickly set upside-down on the floor and took his seat. What you and I see as a garbage can, the creative mind sees as a potential chair. The creative mind also may have a harder time understanding the mess it just made.
So, how is creativity learned? In part, it can be learned in the same way that muscles can be developed: through use. Remember when you were a child, and you used to pretend? Your young world was rich with fantasy. Since that time, you have simply fallen out of the habit. When, as adults, we do permit ourselves a little imagination it is typically in highly structured venues such as board games or watching a movie. You can expand on these by allowing yourself to engage in a little “what if” thinking. Perhaps while you are alone-- during your morning commute maybe—you can imagine scenarios such as “what if I were the last person on Earth?” It can be fun to think through the problems (dentistry, wild animals) as well as the benefits (Dinner at the White House?). Opportunities for creative thinking abound: what if all people had to live underground? What if society was modern except that we had to use sailboats and horses for transportation? These private fantasies don’t have correct answers, nor will they produce immediately useful insights. They will, however, leave your thinking a little more open, fluid, and novel. And these are qualities that can translate to success at work and in relationships.
In the end, remember that being smart isn’t just about quick processing and a terrific memory. It is more than knowing a bunch of facts. Intelligence is, in part, how you think. People who can be wise about this mental process are those who are best set up for success. You can categorize in ways that help but must balance this tendency with an ability to see each individual. You can make comparisons, but I urge you to do so in ways that leave you feeling good about yourself or about your future prospects. You can open yourself to novel and unusual fantasies that will help you problem solve at work or be more open minded and accepting among your friends.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” because his research on happiness and other positive topics has taken him to such far-flung destinations as Greenland, Kenya, India and Israel. Robert works as a researcher, coach, and coach trainer at Postive Acorn. He lives in Portland, Oregon (USA) and rock climbs whenever possible. www.positiveacorn.com
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