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Reflect on This...

End of year "navel gazing" may be as useless as belly button lint.

"IT'S navel gazing time again, that stretch of the year when many of us turn our attention inward and think about how we can improve the way we live our lives. But as we embark on this annual ritual of introspection, we would do well to ask ourselves a simple question: Does it really do any good?

The poet Theodore Roethke had some insight into the matter: "Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse." As a psychologist who conducts research on self-knowledge and happiness, I think Roethke had a point, one that's supported by a growing body of controlled psychological studies."

Not sure how you feel about a special person in your life? Analyzing the pluses and minuses of the relationship might not be the answer.

In a study I conducted with Dolores Kraft, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Dana Dunn, a social psychologist at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, people in one group were asked to list the reasons their relationship with a romantic partner was going the way it was, and then rate how satisfied they were with the relationship. People in another group were asked to rate their satisfaction without any analysis; they just gave their gut reactions.

It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.

In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the "gut feeling" group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.

Self-reflection is especially problematic when we are feeling down. Research by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a clinical psychologist at Yale University, shows that when people are depressed, ruminating on their problems makes things worse.

In one study, mildly depressed college students were asked to spend eight minutes thinking about themselves or to spend the same amount of time thinking about mundane topics like "clouds forming in the sky."

People in the first group focused on the negative things in their lives and sunk into a worse mood. People in the other group actually felt better afterward, possibly because their negative self-focus was "turned off" by the distraction task.

What about people like police officers and firefighters who witness terrible events? Is it helpful for them to reflect on their experiences?

For years it was believed that emergency workers should undergo a debriefing process to focus on and relive their experiences; the idea was that this would make them feel better and prevent mental health problems down the road. After 9/11, for example, well-meaning counselors flocked to New York to help police officers, firefighters and rescue workers deal with the trauma of what they had seen.

But did it do any good? In an extensive review of the research, a team led by Richard McNally, a clinical psychologist at Harvard, concluded that debriefing procedures have little benefit and might even hurt by interrupting the normal healing process. People often distract themselves from thinking about painful events right after they occur, and this may be better than mentally reliving the events.

What can we do to improve ourselves and feel happier? Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle's observation that "We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people - unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we're doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

A study by University of California, Riverside, social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues found that college students instructed to do a few acts of kindness one day a week ended up being happier than a control group of students who received no special instructions.

As the new year begins, then, reach out and help others. If that sounds suspiciously like an old Motown song or like simplistic advice from one of those do-gooder college professors, well, it is. But the fact is that being good to others will ultimately make us kinder, happier people - just so long as we don't think too much about it.

Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious."

Source - NY Times.

Snagged from ladymeow.

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Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
beccak1961
Dec. 30th, 2005 06:11 am (UTC)
I thought I might pretend this year just didn't happen, sort of a Bobby Ewing, "dallas" type dream sequence, where I wake up and my world exists again.
silverdee
Dec. 30th, 2005 09:39 am (UTC)
I think of our old world as a parallel reality to this oddness we are in now. At certain moments, I would like to be able to click my ruby slippers and go back there.
plus_c
Dec. 30th, 2005 07:22 am (UTC)
The article raises some good points. At the same time though, self-contemplation at the end of a year can bring some positives. I use self-contemplation as a feedback mechanism of sorts - what did I do this year that I liked, what didn't I like, etc. To me, it's all part of trying to figure out what kind of person I need to be in order to be able to be truly happy with myself and my situation in life.

However, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.
silverdee
Dec. 30th, 2005 09:41 am (UTC)
I agree. Too much soul-searching can lead to inertia. Sometimes you gotta make like Nike and just do it. :-)
kwanyin2004
Dec. 30th, 2005 08:20 am (UTC)
self-analysis
I think that this has more than one issue all muddled together. Too many, in fact, to address individually in much detail.

As a Buddhist, I follow The Four Noble Truths, which basically mean 1. Make sure you understand the problem. 2. Figure out the cause. 3. Set a goal. 4. Use the most ethical path to reach the goal.

We self-analyse all the time and it is what keeps us from straying into deep, murky water.

"Not sure how you feel about a special person in your life?..." Perhaps the problem is in not defining the problem. I would guess that most people would have a superficial examination, such as "Does he stimulate me intellectually? Is he good in bed?..." The real problem is "Why do I have doubts? What am I bringing to this relationship that is making me hesitate?"

As well, perhaps people in the gut feeling group had none of these problems. Those in the analysing group actually had a gut feeling that something was wrong and that's why they were analysing.

I think timing is important. Right after the 9/11 disaster was probably not the right time. The grieving person knows when they are ready to talk. They need to follow their own timetable.

People who were asked to analyse their kind acts later viewed themselves as less kind. I don't think that's a bad thing. We need to see clearly why we do the things we do. Personal growth hurts. By reaching a true state of honesty with our motivations, we can then develop real altruism. Then, we act without self-interest.

I think self-analysis is crucial to developing spiritual maturity. We are filled with delusion and seeing ourselves as we truly are is the only way we can progress toward being who we truly want to be.

silverdee
Dec. 30th, 2005 09:55 am (UTC)
Re: self-analysis
I am introspective by nature so the editorial's viewpoint really intrigued me. I do like the concept put forth of acting like the person you want to be. But to know who that person is there would need to be some self-awareness to know what you want to change and what actions would be different from your normal ones. So you are still analyzing. There really is no stopping personal examination. Not that I could anyway.

(It's nice having you back to bounce things off of!)
joybilee
Dec. 30th, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC)
interesting article. some very good points. i think self-analysis is good to an extent, but it can easily get out of hand & cause more problems than it solves. me for example. i ponder way to much about way too much. makes me crazy!
silverdee
Dec. 31st, 2005 11:37 am (UTC)
I did think it was an interesting alternative viewpoint on the year-end trend toward introspection. Happy New Year to you and thanks for your support during the craziness here. Hugs!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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