Recent research in clinical psychology reveals three basic principles thathave relevance for all of us. The first is that rather than trying to control troublesome thoughts and feelings it works better to accept them and not struggle with them. In dealing with most problems of human behavior we are hampered by thoughts and feelings that get in the way of change. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, you may have found that cravings and difficulty concentrating drove you back to smoking. If you have been depressed, your efforts to get moving (a well-established antidote to depression) might have been undermined by thoughts and feelings that told you that nothing would work. Many people who try to lose weight can go into a tailspin where they are so upset with their weight or appearance that will do anything to end their distress. Unfortunately, for many of us, eating is a way to calm down.
For many years, the main advice that behavior therapist gave their clients about how to deal with troublesome thoughts was that they should change their thinking. Get rid of thoughts that lead you to not try new activities. Replace thoughts that get you down with more positive thoughts. The power of positive thinking! That has probably helped many people.
However, research shows that when people try not to think of something, they are actually more likely to think about it. Try this. Put down your tablet or turn off your screen, close your eyes, and try not to think about chocolate cake for the next minute or so. If you succeeded, you probably did it by constantly thinking about something else. But if that worked for a minute, try losing weight and keeping it off by not thinking about fattening food for the rest of your life.
As a result of this insight therapists have become adept at helping people make room for unpleasant or troublesome thoughts and feelings rather than trying to control or suppress them. Many therapists encourage their clients to look at their mind as though it is a different person. If you have a distressing thought, you can thank your mind for it, but you don’t have to believe your mind. Encouraging such a playful approach to things that we have struggled to avoid seems to take the air out of them. It turns out we don’t have to get rid of negative or discouraging thoughts in order to live meaningful, caring, and productive lives.
Which brings me to the second principle: Make your life about pursuing your most important values. Therapists have learned to help people get clearer about what they want their lives to be about—what they really value. They encourage people to turn away from struggles to control thoughts and feelings and turn toward acting on their most important values. You don’t need to quell your doubts or believe that you can succeed; you just need to start pursuing what is really important to you. Do you want more caring relationships with other people? You can start expanding that part of your life today by engaging in caring acts toward others. And if you have the thought that someone doesn’t deserve your kindness or that they will never reciprocate, you can have that thought and still act. (And more than likely, it will influence those around you to become more caring toward you.)
The third principle is that it helps to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness involves paying attention with openness and without judgment. It might involve paying attention to unpleasant thoughts and feelings in a patient, accepting, and sympathetic way. Or it might involve paying attention to what we see around us instead of dwelling on unhelpful thoughts. The next time you find yourself really frustrated by a situation, see what happens if you take a deep breath and just start paying attention in a compassionate way to what is going on in your and around you.
The impact of this value-focused mindful approach to living is impressive. There are now more than 60 randomized controlled trials showing its benefit for quitting smoking, coping with schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, increasing exercise, losing weight, preventing burnout in work settings, and becoming more willing to get to know people of a different race or ethnic background. There is even a study showing that the approach helped people reduce the rate of epileptic seizures.
There is another benefit of the mindful pursuit of values. Many people find that they become more patient and compassionate with others and with themselves. Think about what gets in the way of our paying attention to what others are thinking and feeling. Often it is for perfectly understandable reasons. Someone loses a loved one and we don’t know what to say or how to comfort them. Or someone is mad at us so we avoid them because we are hurt or angry and try to avoid these feelings by avoiding the person.
But imagine that you got increasingly comfortable having unpleasant feelings. Suppose you cultivated the ability to have them and did not fight feeling distressed. Instead you got so you treated yourself with sympathy when you felt distressed.
There is growing evidence that such a self-compassionate stance makes it easier for us to be in the presence of others’ distress—even when they are angry with us. If I do not need to avoid the thoughts and feelings I have when you are upset with me, then I can listen to you and I can address concerns you have about me. Not that I will feel good about your criticism, but I have learned to just let my feelings be there, because it works to build better relationships.
What would happen if most everyone adopted this mindful approach to living according to their values? Is it possible that we would all be better equipped to care for each other? How many conflicts would be prevented because people were able to listen to each other without getting caught up in the need to defend themselves or deny the other person? How much better might we become at understanding the motivation and needs of others?