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Sunday, January 01, 2006


Interesting piece in the NY Times a few days ago on the subject of self-introspection. The verdict? Looking inward at one's life, even with the intention to improve those parts found lacking, is not always a useful activity.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I started reading this post, my gut reaction was, oy, the New York times now wants to tell us that making a Chesbon is not healthy, analyzing our deeds is not healthy, etc.

But, then when I got past the first paragraph, I realized they were given very, very sound advice. And, I agree that obsession over small things is what is holding many daters back. I, too, have a number of friends that fall (or fell) into this category.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Shifra said...

It's true about doing a good deed too.
I went to shul on shabbos feeling just terrible- the shul was pretty crowded when I got there but I still managed to get a decent seat. As I sat there feeling just terrible an old woman came into the shul. She looked from side to side and saw that there was no seat nearby for her to sit down in - she looked concerned and more than a little unsteady.
I quickly jumped up and motioned to her to take my seat. She took it gratefully and I sat way in the back feeling a whole lot better overall.

7:06 PM  
Blogger MUST Gum Addict said...

Rabbi Yisroel Reisman (of Flatbush) often mentions that the word "ahava" can mean love, but also the word "overlook". There's a saying "Love is Blind" and Rabbi Resiman explains that when you love someone, you don't notice "the little annoying things" because you're blind to it.

If you love someone, you care about the person, not the way they hold their fork -- and therefore, it doesn't bother you. Your'e able to "overlook" that attribute.

If you are caught up in the little stupid things (as I like to call them), then love isn't in the air.

The problem though is, you can't tell me that you love someone from dating them. Love is something that develops over time and especially so through experiencing hardships together. People who wait to fall in love with someone before they get married will always get annoyed by the little stupid things because they aren't going to find that kind of blind love.

The article speaks of the "gut feeling" and by and large, when we marry young (myself included), we go with a gut feeling. You say to yourself, this is the kind of person I want to share my life with and spend my days with. If the gut feeling is right, the love flourishes. But if you nit pick, you never give the love a chance to grow and you just see the stupid little things that get in the way.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Shifra said...

Must - I'm not so sure I agree with your assesment. My husband and I loved each other very much before we got married. Even though we met when we were pretty young we'd both been through enough in life to know what mattered.

8:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As with Sephardilady, my initial reaction as I started to read was negative. After all, if you ask me out of context whether I favor analysis, the answer is a resounding yes. But then I thought about my perfect marriage and all the people who tried to get me to analyze it more before jumping in nearly ten years ago... I am so glad that I didn't get carried away with the results.

Shifra: Comparing your relationship now to just before you were married, would you agree that the quality has changed for the better in many possibly subtle ways? Could it be that you and Must are contemplating different kinds of love?

9:49 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Excellent post, OM.

As always, it comes down to what analysis means: Dwelling on issues does little but create more problems; thinking about how to take care of issues is completely different. Sometimes, thinking about little issues can be a good thing - if you are smart enough to think about them and say, "You know what, who cares? So they hold their fork funny. So they do this, say that. Big freaking deal."

I was just chewing out a wife's friend last week for trying to overanalyze her first few dates with a really good guy. It's almost as if she's looking to find things wrong - though she admits they're really enjoying their dates, and he's a great guy. The same story she at first said was such a good example of how comfortable they are she then tried to analyze as being too forward - it's crazy.

12:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd personally like to thank all the ladies who overanalyzed my husband and turned down opportunities for second dates. I owe a lot to you!

9:10 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...

SephardiLady said...

I'd personally like to thank all the ladies who overanalyzed my husband and turned down opportunities for second dates. I owe a lot to you!

LOL! That's a great way to look at it.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No kidding, that took a lot of convincing on my part, that we should ignore all the analyzing and go with the gut feelings! But I agree that as much as we thought we "loved" each other then, our relationship now (almost 10 years later) is built on our shared history and is thus ever so much more stronger and more meaningful.

But that was one of the things we discussed during that analytical stage, whether what we felt was "romantic love" (self-focused, being with this person makes me feel good) or "true love" (other-focused, what can I do for this other person to make him or her feel good).

And the argument went, it can't really be "true love" without a relationship to build on... it was really a very circular argument, so eventually we ditched the analyzing altogether. (And Baruch Hashem that we did! Because, you know, "it could never have worked," but it does.)

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the best dating advice I ever received - the "right" person is the one who (after meeting your basic requirements "on paper") makes you forget you even had a list of requirements in the first place.

3:29 PM  
Blogger CJ said...

Very interesting research, and for the most part I agree with it. However, being so fond of introspection myself, I'm going to argue that perhaps the problem is just that most people don't know how to introspect properly.

Happiness, introspection, and thinking.

Perhaps with proper training our introspection can work for us and not against us...

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you all don't realize is that internet dating does not work. You never know who you are speaking with with, whether they are telling the truth, and the quality of the individual. People lie about their age, income, job, and even marital status. When I came accoss
Great Date Now
I realized that personalized matchmaking is a good choice.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous viagra online said...

I think one of the most important things we can do is looking inwards, and one can find a whole new world regarding our consciousness, that is what many of the teachers that walked the earth teach us.

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