Scientifically Speaking, There's No Reason to Be Miserable

One of the main ways you and I cause ourselves unnecessary misery and trouble is by believing ideas we don't know for sure are facts. You "know" things that aren't actually true, but you don't know they aren't true, so you act on those beliefs and it causes you problems.

It's not just you; we all do it. We act as if we know things we don't actually know. Since you're the one reading this, I'll address you directly.

To help this make sense to you, I suggest you think now of a specific problem you have had recently — the more recent, the better. When have you experienced a negative emotion in the last week or so? Pick one specific time. What were you doing? Arguing with your spouse? Trying to introduce yourself to someone? Pounding the steering wheel because you were stuck in traffic and running late? Getting chewed out by your boss? Pick only one thing for now. We will call it your Problem or Challenge, or your P/C for short.

We will start now with an assumption. I recommend you make this assumption whenever you feel a negative emotion: You have your P/C because there is something you believe — something you think is true — that isn't true. Or it is unprovable either way, true or false. I am accusing you of unscientific thinking. We are all guilty of it. Even very highly trained experimental scientists occasionally think unscientifically.

It's not that thinking unscientifically causes all problems or all bad moods, but almost every problem, bad mood, or limitation you experience in your life is to some degree worsened or held in place because you believe something that isn't true. Read that last sentence again: it is important.

Sometimes believing something that isn't true can actually help you — like "having faith in yourself" — but here we are only concerned about beliefs that cause you trouble. We're looking for thoughts you have that make you unhappy. The question is: What are you thinking about your P/C that might not be true?

There's a catch to this. You knew there had to be a catch, didn't you? This technique isn't as easy as it sounds. Why? Think about it. How can you know what isn't true when you have already assumed it to be true? If you already knew it wasn't true, then technically, it's not a belief, and it's probably not causing you any problems.

How can you discover something you believe that isn't true?

You start with an assumption: Assume that if you are dysphoric (that is, feeling negative emotions), there is something you are thinking about your P/C that isn't a known fact. Make that assumption and start looking, and you will find one or two of them — maybe a whole bunch of them. And when you find them, and you realize you don't know for sure they are true, they will stop interfering with your thinking. Result: good moods more often and more effective actions.

You are on a hunt. You are trying to find ideas you hold with too much confidence. Why? Because you reason from those ideas; you use them as sound and stable facts, and you take actions based on them. Doctors once believed that too much blood in one's body could cause illness. It was only a theory, but the doctors reasoned from this theory as if it were a proven fact, and took actions based on it. Doctors all over Europe tried to cure people suffering from serious illnesses by relieving them of some of their blood. This often made people sicker, as you can imagine, especially with no knowledge of germs and no sterilization procedures, and sometimes the treatment killed the patient. Untrue ideas, held with excessive confidence, tend to cause trouble. Much (if not most) of the suffering of humankind has been caused by people having too much confidence in beliefs that weren't true. You could say it is the main theme of history. Don't let it be the theme of your personal history.

It may seem somewhat counterproductive to move from more certainty to less certainty. But introducing uncertainty in place of a fixed idea can open up opportunities for new solutions. In an experiment, Ellen Langer and Alison Piper laid several items in front of participants. With one group, the experimenter said, "This is a hair dryer (pointing to a hair dryer), this is a dog's chew toy (pointing to a dog's chew toy), etc."

With the other group, the experimenter said, "This could be a hair dryer (pointing to the hair dryer), this could be a dog's chew toy (pointing to the dog toy), etc." The only thing they did differently was to introduce some uncertainty. Saying an item "could be such and such" implied there were other possibilities; saying an item "is such and such" implies certainty and finality. It implies there are no other possibilities.

Then the subjects filled out some forms with pencils. After they finished, the experimenters acted as if they had made a mistake. They told the subjects they couldn't finish the experiment because of the errors and that they didn't have any more forms.

The dog's chew toy was made out of rubber and could be used for an eraser. Only the people in the this-could-be-a-dog-toy group thought of that solution. Making the fixed belief into something less certain allowed more creativity. Less certainty helped them solve a problem successfully.

The same is true for you and your P/C. When you discover something you've assumed to be true that isn't actually a known and established fact, you introduce some uncertainty in the place of your fixed idea. By doing so, you gain some freedom; you can be more creative; you're more likely to find a solution. Things work better when you reason from fewer faulty ideas, and it will help you stay in a better mood.

the nuts and bolts

Now let's get down to brass tacks. How can you discover your faulty ideas? First: find out what you are thinking. Ask yourself: "What am I thinking about this problem (or limitation or challenge)?" If you can't actually catch yourself thinking anything, then ask yourself what you believe about it in general, as if someone had asked you a casual question about your opinion. Ask yourself what you think. "What do you think about this problem?"

You will get answers. When you ask a question, your mind will furnish answers. Write those out in a list.

Now put those thoughts under a microscope. For each thought, ask yourself: "Do I know it's true or is it only a theory?" You will find there is quite a bit you assume that you don't know is true. Don't get ridiculously philosophical about this or the process stops doing any good. "Do I really know for sure the sun will come up tomorrow?" Well, technically, no, you don't. But for all practical purposes, you do know, and here we are only concerned with practical purposes.

That's really all there is to it. Ask yourself what you're thinking; ponder it, wonder about it, and as you come up with thoughts, scrutinize them on the basis of evidence. This process, as easy as it sounds, it very productive. Try it and see for yourself.

You can do it in your head or you can do it on paper. It's easier on paper. Just about any thinking process works better on paper. Thoughts are light and airy and it's easy to get lost in daydreams. When you start thinking, you know what happens: one thought reminds you of another related thought, which reminds you of another related thought, and before you know it you are thinking about your fourth grade teacher with the green lipstick when you started out to think about your credit-card debt. Your mind works by association, so it's difficult to keep it on track. Writing your questions and answers down on paper holds the thoughts still and makes it easier to get somewhere.

If you can do it in your head, that's fine too. There is no need to do a perfect job here. It's really not even possible to do it perfectly. There are unending layers of thoughts you have that aren't true. But this process can get some big chunks and it can do some good and that's all we're after. Just ask the questions, see what comes up, check your beliefs for their soundness, and get on with the business of living. This is not soul-searching; it's more on the order of fixing a leaky faucet.

To give you an idea of how this might look, the following is a sample written dialog of a person who's problem or challenge was that he needed to spend more time on the computer writing a book and less time goofing off. (Gee, I wonder who that could be?) Read the dialog to get the flavor of the process, and then try it on your own with your P/C.

You don't need any special rules for what makes a thought "unscientific" — use your common sense. When you slow your thoughts down on paper like this and really ponder the validity of your own thoughts, you can tell which ones are fishy. Realize they're fishy and go on. You don't need to try to get rid of a belief; as soon as you know it isn't a known fact, it loosens its hold on you. That's all you need to do.

In order to have a dialog, you need two people. But there's only one of you. So you're going to play two parts like someone who plays a chess game against herself: She sits on one side and makes a move and plays to win, then she goes and sits on the other side and plays to win. When you write out a dialog, do the same thing. Use two different colored pens and write questions with one color, then pick up the other pen and write your answers. Then pick up the first pen and play the role of critic: Are those thoughts valid? Reasonable? Do you have any evidence for them?

Okay, here we go:

GREEN PEN: What is your problem or challenge?

BLACK PEN: I want to write a book, but I put it off a lot. I spend too much time reading and talking with my wife and watching movies.

GREEN: What do you think about writing the book?

BLACK: It will be hard to do; no fun.

GREEN: Do you know that for a fact?

BLACK: Well, of course, you can never really predict the future, but some of the work on it I've done so far has been a drag. I have been digging through every known fact and backup research material I can find.

GREEN: Do you think that is necessary?

BLACK: I guess so.

GREEN: Since you are doing it and it isn't enjoyable you must think it is necessary.

BLACK: Yeah, I guess I do.

GREEN: Is it necessary?

BLACK: I don't know; I think so.

GREEN: So you don't know for a fact.

BLACK: Well, it's not the kind of thing that you can say is a fact or not. I could write a book without doing it.

GREEN: And what would happen if you did?

BLACK: It might not have everything I know in it. That would cheat the reader.

GREEN: So you think you have to put everything you know into this one book?

BLACK: I guess so.

GREEN: Is that possible?

BLACK: I guess not.

GREEN: You guess not?! Of course that isn't possible!

BLACK: Hey, take it easy!

GREEN: You are continually learning. There is no way you could put everything you know into one book. You would never be able to finish it. Besides, who would want to read it? The reader is looking for something useful: The reader is not looking for a record of what you know, and certainly isn't going to want to slog through all the research material.

BLACK: No, I guess not.

GREEN: Would you?


GREEN: No! Of course not. In fact, that is one thing putting you off writing the book — slogging through all that research material again.

BLACK: Boy, if I didn't have to go through all that research material again, I would feel more motivated.

GREEN: Well you don't have to. Your book might not sell, but you don't have to.

BLACK: What?

GREEN: Well, it doesn't seem likely, but it's a possibility that your readers would want to read every little detail of research. Don't go from one stupid belief to another (from "I have to" to "I don't have to"). Realize you don't know and leave it at that. So you don't have to put all that research material into the book. You feel more motivated to do the book. Or, more accurately, your motivation is less inhibited by an assumption you made.

And so on.

Of course, the writer might try these things and find he still has trouble. At that point, he can wonder what he's thinking, and question those thoughts for their validity. It's not an exact science, and it won't cure everything, but your chances are good that it will help, at least a little bit. It is likely to be worth your time.

Now you try it. Or next time you are experiencing a negative emotion, try it. Ask yourself in the heat of the emotion, "What am I thinking right now?" And then ask yourself, "Is that true? Do I really know that for a fact?"

After doing this a few times, you'll probably start to wonder where the hell you got all those dumb ideas. We probably picked up most of them when we were younger and didn't know we would ever rely on this stuff. We learned a lot of things we have forgotten we learned. We learned it from what our parents told us or what we concluded from what we saw. Sometimes an offhand remark of our trumpet teacher or the cutting remark of a childhood sweetheart gave us a belief that wasn't true, and we've never thought to change it because all this time we've been thinking from the thought — not really thinking the thought consciously at all.

Do you remember learning to tie your shoes? I don't. I don't even know how I do it. I've been doing it so long it has become completely automatic. Some of our thoughts are like that, and that's one reason it is hard to discover what you're thinking.

If you have already tried this seek-the-false-belief process, you've found that the hardest part is knowing what you are thinking, which is really kind of funny. You'd think the words in your head would be one of the most obvious parts of your experience. But it isn't that way at all. Those thoughts go flitting by in the back hallways, working their magic, changing your feelings, and unless you really pay attention, they go by much too fast and automatically to notice.

I have a little tip to help you figure out what you're thinking: guess. That's right, guess. Given the way you feel, what can you guess you might be thinking? Just about any time you seriously ask yourself a question, you will come up with an answer. So when you try to guess what you are thinking, you will come up with something. Now, it is possible that what you guessed was wrong. So don't just believe what you guessed was what you were actually thinking; ask yourself if this guess is something you really believe. If not, forget it. If so, then put the thought through the acid test: Do you know it is true? Are you completely sure? Or is it only a theory?

Another thing you might have trouble with is that sometimes your thoughts are not in words. We've been discussing this whole subject as if all your thoughts were words, but that isn't the case. Some of your thoughts are pictures. But you can do this process with pictures by translating the meaning of the pictures into words.

For example, I remember one time I felt depressed, but I couldn't figure out what I was thinking. I was really not saying anything to myself. Then I looked for pictures and realized I had an image of myself as an old man being a penniless loser, and the image made me anxious and depressed. I translated it into words and it came out something like this: "I'll never amount to anything."

Now I had something to work with. "Do I know that for a fact? No, I guess it is a possible future, but it depends a lot on what I do between now and then. Anything could happen, and that is one possibility. So I'd best concentrate on my work and not goof off as much."

Do you see that this is not pie-in-the-sky positive thinking? This is not trying to drown out the negative thinking with positive thinking. It is investigating your negative thinking to find out how much of it will stand up to an honest appraisal of the evidence. Some of it will — and that will have to be a reality you need to deal with. But some of it won't, and that will be some unhappiness that can drop away, leaving you in a better mood, with a clearer head.

Question your thoughts; find out what you're thinking, and find out how much of it is true. It will improve your mood here and there, and that will make a difference.

In the long run, you will clean up your thinking; you'll change the way you think about things and that will have a great effect on your life, again, in the long run. It happens like this: You find yourself thinking some stupid thought like, "I never do anything right!" You look at it, realize it is overstated and not true, and you feel better.

A week later, you make a mistake and you find yourself again thinking, "I never do anything right!" You've already argued that one down. What are doing thinking it again? The patterns of thought you have used through your lifetime are now a habit. So often you'll catch yourself thinking the same stupid thought over and over again. No problem. See the falseness in it, again, and go on. You win a small personal victory each time, and each time, you increase your chances of never thinking that counterproductive thought again.

The negative feelings you have experienced over and over since your childhood will happen less and less often and all the stupid kinds of things you do used to do when you felt that way will become a thing of the past. All you need to do is persevere.

Ask yourself what you are thinking about a problem.

Argue with those beliefs by asking, "Do I know that for sure?"

"What is wanted is not the will to believe but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."
— Bertrand Russell

"Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong."
— Thomas Jefferson

Adam Khan is the author of  Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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