The Happiness Map: How (and Why) to Stop Overthinking

At the moment I’m reading The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Lyubomirsky has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford and has spent her entire academic career researching nothing but happiness. (Which I think is a pretty freaking awesome thing to do for your life’s work, don’t you?)

Anyway, she develops 12 specific strategies, backed by research (not just hers but the entire body of Positive Psychology) that people can employ to permanently boost their happiness level. It’s a full-on masterclass in happiness, and it manages to be spiritual and scientific all at once, which is so speaking my language.

Anyway, one of her key strategies is to avoid overthinking. In academic circles, overthinking is known as self-focused rumination. It’s when you constantly overthink the meanings, causes, and consequences of your circumstances, problems, and feelings. You ponder, you yearn, you lament about being stuck. If you’re a ruminator, you know what I’m talking about.

And though our Oprah-influenced society (not a criticism of Oprah, btw…I love her) would lead us to believe we should obsessively mull everything over and give our issues lots of deep thought…there is, in fact, plenty of evidence that overthinking doesn’t actually make things better. It turns out overthinking is bad for you, and can cause a whole lot of unhappiness.

Social comparison is a particular brand of overthinking. This is when we obsessively compare ourselves with others. It’s a very bad habit that can cause a lot of misery, distress, feelings of inferiority, and general unhappiness.

And, it’s a trap easily fallen into, with so much access these days to the details of other people’s lives. And let’s face it–no matter how good your life is, there’s always going to be someone who’s got it better.

Personally, I must admit that overthinking is a vice of mine. I can definitely lapse into rumination, particularly if I’m going through a difficult phase. So I read this chapter of hers with great interest.

Here’s what Lyubomirsky suggests for people who are plagued by ruminations:

Try distracting yourself. When you feel yourself getting sucked into the vortex of overthinking, redirect your attention to something more engaging, productive, or perhaps physically active.

Try the “Stop!” technique. Think, say, or maybe even shout aloud “No!” or “Stop!”. Some people visualize a stop sign, or a red traffic light.

Try creating a rumination appointment. Set aside a time every day when, for 30 minutes, you get all your ruminating done. So during the course of the day, whenever you feel yourself starting to brood, just tell yourself to put it aside, for now, because you can get to it later. Typically, when the appointed time comes, you won’t really feel like doing it anyway.

Talk to a confidante. Get out of your own head and talk to a trusted friend about what’s bothering you. It might be exactly what you need to get perspective. Be careful with this one, though…if you overdo it, that trusted friend of yours might start avoiding your calls.

Write. The therapeutic value of journalling is well-recognized. It’s a great way to unload your thoughts and feelings, and for a lot of people, getting stuff down in print breaks the cycle. And then you can get on with other, more constructive, things.

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One Comment on “The Happiness Map: How (and Why) to Stop Overthinking

  1. Overthinking is counterproductive since it’s too much focus and analyzation on the bad, since it’s what we tend to remember more, at least in my personal experience. Distractions are important, and writing is one of my favorite distractions/creative outlets. It lets me escape, and feel confident in myself and writing abilities. thank you for this article

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