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Thursday, December 29, 2005

No, I Don't Like to Think

It turns out that psychologists think we'll all have healthier relationships if we would just stop thinking about them so much.  Of course, there is a surface plausibility to this idea: if we take the pulse of our relationships minute-to-minute, we will lose the proverbial forest for the trees. 

I tell my students a similar thing about my courses.  Don't try to assess if you're learning day-by-day.  If you take the long view, you are likely to see that you are in fact absorbing much more than you think.  Not a perfect analogy, but still.

The problem with the prescription the psychologists recommend is that it can't be a thinking person's solution.  One doesn't will the analytic mind exactly.  And just how are we to distinguish that elusive "happiness" brought about by simply cutting off the neurotic parts of our brain from false consciousness?  Mightn't we end up in "happy" relationships that are actually fundamentally bad for us.  A central problem that can't be resolved by a New York Times op-ed, of course.  And irrelevant to the law.  But aren't most of us on break?

Posted by Ethan Leib on December 29, 2005 at 02:07 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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So the op-ed offers sketchy statistics to validate a popular approach to modern psychology: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—Pop a Prozac and stuff Ritalin down children’s throats before they learn to think for themselves. Mainstream society (or certain aspects of it) refuses to acknowledge the ups and downs that are innate to the human condition. Is the problem that we think too much about our happiness or that that we think we are *supposed* to be perfectly happy and serene all the time? “Thinking” does not create misery that wasn’t already there. At most, it magnifies existing unhappiness, which may serve as an all-important reality check.

I do agree with certain aspects of the article. After a certain point, one should graduate from analysis to action. As the article noted, “One of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.” “Thinking” is integral to the process of finding one’ center, but it is still part of a “process”. Some people do hide cowardice behind analysis or “objectivity”.

“Thinking too much” may also entangle the thinker in his own negative schemas. Bad thoughts connect to other bad thoughts and suddenly everything positive is associated with something negative. But psychology should help us to navigate and change those schemas, rather than avoid them altogether. Yes, I do believe that people need distraction, but that’s not a long-term solution. It is long-term denial.

Maybe the problem is that society differentiates “thinking” from “feeling” as if they have to be two separate things. It falls into the whole genre of inauthentic dichotomies: nature/ nurture, masculine/feminine, etc. If we feel an emotion, we should explore it intellectually. We should figure out the thought processes *behind* the emotion rather than simply justifying, apologizing or willing it with the pretense of “logic”. This means that “thinking” and “feeling” cannot be mutually exclusive, especially since we often use both at the same time, whether or not we realize it.

In terms of relationships, we need both in order to differentiate the unhappiness that we project onto the relationship vs. that which the relationship actually causes. Similarly, thinking and feeling can determine whether the relationship is healthy or not… One can only distract themselves for so long until it inevitably evolves into a “false consciousness” that is indeed unhealthy.

Posted by: ms. hart | Jan 1, 2006 10:09:40 PM

I agree: sometimes it's hazardous to your health to think too much. Goofy as it sounds, I think you just have to practice, by bringing things into your life that don't really lend themselves to over-analysis. I got into photography for this reason; other things work for me too, though, including non-classical music, literature, painting, ...

I think you can get better with practice, too - I enjoy things like classical music, philosophy, and religion more now that I'm just able to react to them, in addition to analyzing them. I don't think you need to throw the baby out with the bath water here, but I do think you're missing something if you simply think about things instead of reacting to and feeling about them once in a while.

Blissful doesn't mean not thinking; I see it as more of a yin+yang thing. You really don't want to exclude either side.


> The less I think about what grades I might have gotten, the happier I am.

I hear that! :-)

Posted by: Steve Dispensa | Dec 29, 2005 11:22:31 PM

I spent yesterday chasing my six year old neice, who seems to have undiagnosed ADD, through the SF zoo. After that, law school will seem like a break.

While I also agree that thinking about our relationships less may be healthier - at least for us neurotic people - I think there is another problem with this, beyond the difficulty of achieving the blissful-not-thinking state. If we don't spend much mental energy on our relationships, we risk taking them for granted and not making the effort that is necessary for long term results.

And it does seem to apply to law school, at least for me. The less I think about what grades I might have gotten, the happier I am. But if I never think about them, then I don't have the memory of my sheer neurotic terror-ridden nervousness to motivate me next to study more next semester...

Posted by: Bev | Dec 29, 2005 10:27:09 PM

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