Happiness, introspection, and thinking

How much time do we spend thinking about happiness? Is all of this thought worthwhile? Numerous studies have shown that happy people are those who are less introspective (see Lyubomurski and Lepper 1999, or Veenhoven 1988), suggesting that excessive reflection can lower our mood. We probably all know people who rarely reflect about deeper issues of life, spirituality, or happiness, and yet are the happiest people around. Does this mean that the best way to be happy is to stop thinking? Or is the causation the other way around? Perhaps introspection does not cause unhappiness, but rather, unhappiness causes introspection.

There are definitely problems with thinking too much. Almost every spiritual tradition speaks against this. Peace and happiness can only exist in the present moment, and thought takes us away from this place. We all recognize the negatives of being burdened with thought. Many of us set goals to “live in the moment”, and resolve to relax and be at peace. Ironically, although our ultimate goal is to be free of thought, we spend much time thinking about how to do this.

The natural way out seems to be to stop thinking altogether. We still think thoughts such as how to get our next meal, but we leave the deeper questions of life aside. However, this notion of giving up thought altogether is not only unrealistic, but it is also a cop-out. A cow has very few deep thoughts, but it is only a cow after all. Should we not strive to rise above this?

The answer lies not in giving up thought, but in changing the way we relate to thought. It is true, as the studies showed, that introspection may lead to unhappiness, but this is simply because we need training in the way that we reflect. We must think but without brooding, and we must recognize that our thoughts are not reality. There is a difference between being prepared for an earthquake or hurricane, and lying awake at night for fear that one will strike. Similarly, there is a difference between exploring ways to be happy and peaceful, and  constantly focusing on the idea that we have not yet achieved this happiness or peace. Thoughts are essentially a brainstorm: they represent all possibilities of which we can conceive; however, they do not arrive with some guarantee of authority. The thought that an earthquake might strike does not mean that this is a likely occurrence. A twinge of sadness does not mean that our life is ruined. We must relate to our thoughts as though we were searching the Internet – there is a lot of information there, but it is up to us to discriminate between what is false and what is true. It is up to us to decide where our attention should lie.

Therefore, returning to the initial question of happiness and introspection, the problem arises when our thinking focuses too much on what is wrong. This leads us to believe that we are unhappy – our thoughts become our reality. We must stop taking ourselves so seriously, we must stop taking our thoughts so seriously. If we do this, we can have the best of both worlds – we can think, but without being burdened by these thoughts. Our mind is no longer our master, but instead our greatest friend.

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