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A penny for your thoughts? Or would you prefer a shock?

What is it like when you try to entertain yourself with your mind?  Tim Wilson and colleagues just published a paper in Science that suggests that most people do not like such entertainment much at all.  Here’s the NPR piece on it, complete with a link to the Science paper for those who have access to the journal:

In perhaps the most clever (of 11!) studies, people were asked (for 15 minutes) to entertain “yourself with your thoughts as best you can. That is, your goal should be to have a pleasant experience, as opposed to spending the time focusing on everyday activities or negative things.”  If they wanted to they could, sometimes, give themselves a mild electric shock.  Previously they had been given a sample of the shock and had rated it on a scale from 1 (very unpleasant) to 9 (very pleasant). Of those who rated it below the midpoint, 64% of men and 15% of women gave themselves at least one shock while entertaining themselves with their thoughts.

In other studies the authors find that many people report that it is unpleasant to try to entertain themselves with their thoughts and find ways to distract themselves from the task.  In a community sample (people at farmer’s markets and Methodists, 49% of whom had post-graduate degrees!  Ah, random samples of the world’s population!)  age was unrelated to pleasantness of the experience.

A few things were related to enjoyment of the experience.  Those higher in self-reported mindfulness (as measured by the MAAS, for those keeping score), higher in reappraisal and in suppression (per Gross’ measure), higher in both promotion and prevention focus (per Higgins’ measure), higher in positive affect, lower in stress, and higher in meditation experience found it more enjoyable.  In analyzing what people thought about during this time (LIWC!), those who thought more about work found the process less enjoyable whereas those who thought about social contact found it enjoyable. 

What to make of this all?  I think I like it because it calls our attention to how unpleasant many people find it to be alone with their thoughts.  We do not know from this study how common it is.  (We would need, for instance, to get a random sample of the world’s population to start to know that. Good luck with that.)  But I don’t think we need an exact estimate–we know that this is a common experience.  If you have taken a meditation course at some point you likely have seen the newbies squirm. Heck, my guess is that at some point alone with your thoughts you wish you had chosen a better date.

But why is this so?  The fact that Wilson and colleagues have called attention to the issue affords the opportunity to look more closely at what will doubtless be its many causes.  I’ll offer a few thoughts.  (1) Subjects here were from the United States, in which the preferred ideal emotion is excitement.  Would Wilson have found the same results in populations (e.g., much of East Asia) with a preference for low arousal positive emotions such as tranquility?  (2) Subjects who practiced meditation enjoyed the experience more.  Note that this is correlational, so you can’t infer cause.  But I would bet that practicing being alone with our thoughts would help us get both more familiar with and more skillful at being with our thoughts.  In general we like that with which we are familiar and at which we are skilled.  (3) Remember that many people think thoughts of themselves that they would not think in regards to their good friends.  My best bet is that we do this (in part–there are doubtless many reasons) to motivate ourselves by thinking some fairly awful things. (Consider Norem and Cantor’s work on defensive pessimists.  Some terrific students spend much time thinking of how certain imminent failure is, thereby motivating themselves to do well but living a rather miserable path to “success.”).  If that’s the place you go to entertain yourself I could see why you would like the occasional electric shock instead. 

And beyond the “why” questions Wilson’s work raises lurk the “so what” questions.  My guess is the “so what” is big.  If people will distract from their minds with shocks why not with drugs, bad relationships, and really poor selections of music and fiction?  More generally if people are avoiding their thoughts they are in important ways controlled by that avoidance.  If people want to live intentionally, how much more of a challenge will that be if they are instead being chased by, rather than embracing, the silence of  their own presence?


Yesterday AU posted an interview with me about gratitude. When I did the interview I did not realize it would be posted as an interview, and so my answers weren’t framed in a way that fit the medium.  Today I am going to tackle the questions again.  If you’d like to see the original, here it is:

1) What’s the latest research on gratitude?

First, in the last decade there have been more and more studies suggesting that doing gratitude exercises is useful for well-being.  In one, for instance, writing every day about three good things from that day led to more happiness six months later than did various other exercises.  In another expressing (over three weeks) gratitude toward a college friend strengthened the friendship.  The effects are not perfectly consistent. Sometimes the exercises don’t work.  The control groups are not always the best (showing that people are happier thinking of gratitude-inducing events than hassles is not that impressive!)  Sometimes it’s not clear if the reason the exercises are having their effects is due to gratitude.   Sometimes gratitude exercises can become so routine that we hardly notice them and they lose their efficacy, so it’s not clear what the best dosage of gratitude exercise is. Still, on the whole, growing research suggests that practicing gratitude is good for you.

One of the new pieces of work coming form my lab (inspired by my clinical psychology doctoral student Kate Stewart) is whether gratitude exercises help people find meaning and if that’s how they build well-being.  So many people just tune out from their days, which then become meaningless, dull, fraught, listless, empty.  I love the early quote from the movie American Beauty: “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.” [SPOILER ALERT] And that movie ends with “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”  Does the practice of gratitude help us take days that slide by and change them to ones imbued with meaning?  We just presented some of this work in Nashville at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Another interest in my lab is whether when people say they are grateful they mean different things, sometimes focused on being grateful to people and sometimes on being grateful for things.  If so, what are the functions of these two different sorts of gratitude.  I’ve a single study draft paper written to which I want to add results from a second study I ran some time ago.  Hopefully that will be written sometime in early spring and I can sometime next year talk about it more.

There’s a lot more going on in gratitude these days.  Within the next couple months the book Handbook of Positive Emotions, edited by friends Leslie Kirby, Lani Shiota, and Michele Tugade will be out.  In it you will find my chapter (with friend and former student Courtney Forbes) on gratitude and you can read more. It will be expensive. Check your local university library!

2) Do people feel more gratitude during Thanksgiving?

I don’t know the answer as I don’t know any research on the topic.  A good way to think about the answer, though, is to think of what leads to gratitude. We feel grateful when we experience something good that is not of our own making.  To the extent, then, that Thanksgiving leads people to focus on the good in their lives that they have not caused they should feel more grateful. To the extent that they focus on other matters (fights with family, loneliness, the struggles on Thanksgiving Day of their fantasy football teams) they likely will not feel so grateful. Thanksgiving Day pulls our attention in so many different directions and the direction affects whether we are grateful!

3) Are Americans generally ungrateful? Despite tough economic times, this is a comparatively wealthy nation.  Yet people seem frustrated. 

I don’t know how to measure the general gratitude of the nation.  You’d need a good random sample.  You’d need some sort of standard by which to gauge how much gratitude is “ungrateful.”  But it’s clear that we are wealthy, despite the tough times, and it is clear that many people are frustrated.   Some are frustrated because of real poverty, even in this wealthy nation.  Others are frustrated because of the “hedonic treadmill,” that is, the rising expectations as to what is needed to be happy.  As people grow wealthier they adapt to that new wealth. That which gave pleasure before doesn’t do so much any more.  In graduate school I had little money and the days when I would splurge on pizza from the little place down the street were days of luxury.  Now it (too often) takes more expensive food to get my attention.  And so food doesn’t really make me happier than it did.  Jean Twenge has presented some great data suggesting that narcissism, that is, making ourselves the center, has, for decades, been on the rise in the US.  I wonder whether some of the dissatisfaction Americans experience is a consequence of that.  There’s some lovely work coming out on the joys of giving (see, for instance, work by Elizabeth Dunn from British Columbia).  If we are the center isn’t the world supposed to work by giving to us rather than having us give to others?  I wonder whether gratitude can counteract narcissism.  We experience gratitude when we realize that we did not cause the good things we experience, which points toward something important that is beyond us.  And perhaps it points us toward response to that undeserved goodness, giving back, giving forward.  If we’re not focused on our own needs, what does that do to frustration?  These are questions I want to answer in the long run and form much of the basis for my interest in gratitude.

4) Is gratitude just a temporary emotion for most people?

Temporary covers a lot of ground!  Someday the sun will cool off–it’s temporary!  But the question seems to get at whether we can increase the gratitude we experience.  There’s not a lot of work here.  I’d love to see experiments conducted over several years to follow the consequences of different gratitude exercises.

But I think gratitude can be expanded.  Think back to what leads to gratitude–attention to good things that we have not caused.  There’s a great deal of work that indicates that attention can be trained.  (Hey, it wasn’t chance that led you to the point where you can attend to this long enough to read it!)  And so attention can likely be trained to the good (even as we acknowledge so many things in our lives that are anything but good) and to things we didn’t cause (even as there are also goods that we bring into the world).  And if we attend in that way we will be more grateful.  Perhaps then we will find ourselves more filled than we had imagined, and more connected to that wide world that is outside of ourselves.

So that’s a more systematic answer to the four questions that showed up in the AU interview.  If you would like to know more about gratitude ship me an email at  Or take some time to reflect on the good you’ve experienced. Think about the gifts of today. Think about the gifts of now.  And enjoy Thanksgiving not just for the delicious food and the good company and the football but the sense of gratitude that arises from it all.  Safe travels.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Mindfulness and Silence of the Lambs

This link takes you to a brief American U. story about my (now former!) doctoral student Lisa Carlin.  Trying to figure out what mindfulness has to do with Silence of the Lambs?  You’ll need to read!

The Hounds of Silence

What happens if you sit still for awhile and rest?  Does it get a bit unpleasant, or is it a comfortable place?  When you sit do you need to immediately find something to do?  Or can you just be there comfortably?

For so many it is an uncomfortable thing to be still and silent, as they are hounded by their thoughts.  A recent study (by Marchetti, Koster, and De Raedt, in October’s Clinical Psychological Science) examined reactions to rest.  Undergraduates were asked to sit for 25 minutes, close their eyes, and avoid structured thinking like counting or singing.  Periodically they were asked to hit a number on a computer keypad to indicate how intense their external experiences (like smelling, hearing…) and internal experiences (like remembering, thinking) were.  Beforehand they were asked about their mood and about the degree to which they were ruminating, that is, dwelling on negative aspects of their life.  Afterwards they were again asked about their mood and rumination, along with their tendency to be mindful during their lives.

Those who reported more internal experiences (thinking about their pasts, for instance) generally ended up with more negative mood afterwards, controlling for their initial mood.  And this negative mood seemed to be due to their rumination, getting caught up in the struggle with their thoughts.  What is silence like?  Running into thoughts that you don’t want to think and struggling to change those thoughts or run away?  Then getting disconcerted with those thoughts and your inability to control them?  If so, it’s easy to see why resting would put people in a worse mood!

But there were exceptions.  The mood of those who were high in mindfulness, that is, those who tend to bring their attention to their experience without judgment) was not affected by their internal experience during rest.   Being mindful allowed students to be silent, run into their internal thoughts, and not have that put them in a bad mood, likely because they didn’t get caught up in a struggle with those thoughts.

What are the benefits of peaceful rest?  How much peaceful rest do we experience?  Might mindfulness help us rest more peacefully? 

In this study mindfulness was measured after the rest rather than before, and that’s less than ideal methodologically.  Perhaps answers to the mindfulness measure were affected by the experiences during rest, with those who were affected by their internal experiences reporting less mindfulness in general.  It’s also a single correlational study.  It’s far too early to jump to any conclusions about the relationship of mindfulness to rest.  But it’s still a promising result, and I’d love to see followup studies. In my own life I love being able to be comfortably silent, an ability I believe I have developed through mindfulness practice (though I probably owe a bunch to sitting on a lake with my father when I was young, watching the fish not bite our bait!).  In that light I look forward to more studies of rest.

Positive emotions and happiness?

Gratitude, joy, contentment, pride, schadenfreude, hope, relief….is happiness just a general word we use for all these specific emotions?  And what are these positive emotions  there for, anyway?

I’m blogging my psychology of happiness course.  I have four topics to blog about from before our midterm.  Tonight I start to catch up with the post midterm topics.

What is an emotion, anyway?  A short while ago I had a piece of pumpkin pie sitting in front of me and I felt joy.  I wanted it, I wanted then to eat it.  If you unpack that you’ll see an appraisal (“This pie will meet my need to satisfy my hunger!  And I’m pretty darned confident that I can eat it!”)  There’s an action tendency (“I want to pick up my fork and start shoveling this quickly into my mouth!).  And there’s a feeling (joy).  That describes the essence of the appraisal theory view of what emotion is.  We are constantly, in some way, assessing/thinking about/processing our situations, and those assessments give rise both to feelings and to the tendency toward some action.  As humans we can choose not to engage in that action. (I really could have chosen not to go that pie with the fork.  I didn’t.  But I could have!)  Emotions then serve to help us interact with our worlds.  Without much effort we can take in that which is important to us and prepare to act on it while having the flexibility to act in some way other than that which we feel most strongly compelled to do.

There are many of those positive emotions.  I mentioned some of them at the beginning of this post.  As our appraisals change, we change our feelings and action tendencies.  If I “focus” on the fact that I worked long and hard to get a doctorate so I could, in fact, gain employment and thereby pay for the pie I feel pride and want to boast about my goodness.  If I then “focus” on (or “appraise”) the folks who built River Road so I could drive on it to get to the Whole Foods from which I bought the pie I feel grateful and want to go to their houses to tell them how wonderful they are.  When I focused on the fact that my hunger was about to be relieved I felt, well, relief.  When I focused on the fact that Whole Foods was closing very shortly so I really needed to step up my game to make it on time I felt challenge and I committed myself to working hard to get there on time. When I focus on the fact that I wanted blueberry pie but they didn’t have any small ones, I feel sad and I just want to sit here.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Maybe, then, when we say we’re happy we mean we are proud or grateful or tranquil or challenged or….some other specific positive emotion. We’re just not looking at it very clearly to discern which flavor of happiness we are experiencing.  Does this matter?  Maybe we needn’t be aware of which sort of happiness we are feeling.  We can find our way to thanking, boasting, relaxing, working hard, etc. even without understanding the emotion system.  But if we look more closely perhaps we can understand better how we are relating to our world, for instance, whether we are focused on our own self as the cause of good things, or on the contributions of others.  Or if we’re focused on what we need to do, or how uncertain it is that good things will happen.  Or that they have happened and we need not work any more.

Perhaps that way of understanding our emotions can help us understand more our hearts’ desires and feed the emotions we wish.  And perhaps we can understand better the actions we find ourselves seemingly compelled to do, that dance of our desires and our worlds. And dance a different jig.

In the next couple blog posts I’ll dive into two particular emotions to more clearly examine this appraisal idea.  First will be gratitude, then an emotion the social psychologist Jon Haidt labelled “elevation.”

Will I ever learn?

“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”
Rudyard Kipling, Under The Deodars

People find themselves making the same mistakes and so being unhappy in the same ways they have been before.  Why don’t we learn?

Well in part because we convince ourselves we’ve made no mistakes!  I was taught once that dissonance theory arose in part because its founder, Leon Festinger, bought a Nash Rambler, a car that was a lemon.  Though he spent his time swearing it was a great car (so not realizing the mistake) his students could tell it was a blunder.  I don’t know what cars he bought afterwards, but this doesn’t bode well!

But we’re most likely to do that sort of self-justification when our decisions are irrevocable. Once the car is bought, we have reason to convince ourselves it’s great.  Before that we have every reason to search for its flaws so that we make the right choice.

For instance, in one study students were given their choice of one of two posters to take home.  Half were told the decision could not be changed.  Half were told that if they changed their minds they could bring the poster back.  The ones with the irrevocable decision came to like their posters more.  

One key here is that people predicted that revocability would make no difference.  Our ability to persuade ourselves we have been right works because we don’t realize what we are doing.  

An interesting question arising from this is the degree to which having a chance to change our minds undermines our ability to be happy.  Thinking something is a done deal leads us to find a way to live with it and (perhaps hopefully!) to love it.  Thinking that it can be returned leads to a search for the flaws.  How, then, does the presence of no-fault divorce change people’s happiness in marriage?  How does the sense that one will change jobs lead people to not love their jobs?  Search in anything and you can find both beauty and imperfections.  Does keeping one’s options open preclude just giving oneself over to the beauty?


Farewell to the Myers-Briggs (I wish…)

The Myers-Briggs is insanely popular.  So are horoscopes.  Neither is that useful.  The linked piece gives a good description why not.


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