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.
The studies referred to in the article are most relevant to satisfaction levels in relationships, and overall satisfaction with life. The studies show that becoming overly analytical about relationships or one's overall mood will usually only help to detract from one's satisfaction. Regarding relationships:
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.
Now, I wouldn't normally recommend taking dating advice from the NY Times. But this time, I would have to make an exception. I am not by nature an overly analytical person. I have no doubt that had I obsessed over my relationship with OrthoDad with a checklist when we were dating, I would have found cause for concern - as would he have. No one relationship iscause for concern - as would he have. No one relationship is perfect. But that just wasn't in my - or OrthoDad's - nature. We enjoyed the time we spent together (mostly - every relationship has its rough spots!), and didn't sweat the details, and it has gotten us to a place where I think we are (Baruch Hashem) one of the most happily married couples I know. But I cannot tell you how many older singles I know who obsess upon every detail of their prospective significant others. From their style of dress, to the way they hold their forks while out to eat, to some miniscule slight, whether real or perceived. I am not recommending ignoring real warning signs of potential abuse or a lack of attraction. I am talking about the constant, unabated, nitpicky type of analysis that so many of my friends unfortunately practice. In my opinion, the key to a good relationship is spending the time to work differences out, instead of spending time enumerating and analyzing those differences. It may not work for every relationship - but it's certainly worth a shot.
Then there's the futility of introspection when it comes to life, particularly when one is feeling depressed.
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.
The worst thing to do when things aren't going well is to wallow in the misery of that. I can't imagone most of you out there needed that study to tell you that. Though self-introspection when it comes to our deeds is a very important concept in Judaism (the concept of Cheshbon HaNefesh), introspection relating to one's present situation is not. One does not need to obsess about one's station or circumstances in life to improve oneself.
I have a friend I used to jokingly call (to her face), the "Queen of Regret". Every decision she made would be agonized over, and then she would immediately begin to regret any decision about a minute after she finally made it. She was fully aware that these tendencies were not helpful at all to her overall happiness, and tried to overcome them. She still calls me sometimes for a reality check when she finds herself falling into those bad habits.
Interestingly, the advice recommended by the article on how to stay happy? Do a good deed. Really.
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.
The bottom line? Do good things. For your friends, your spouse, your parents, your kids. According to this study, it will improve your relationships and make you feel better about your life at the same time. According to me, it can't hurt.