Sometimes trying to solve the problem makes it worse.
We all go through life with rises and falls in mood and energy. Often these changes in mood come out of the blue. One moment we’re happily bumbling through life, daydreaming, feeling content and unfussed, but then something subtle happens. Before we know it, we’re starting to feel a little stressed: there’s too much to do and not enough time, and the pace of demands seems ever more relentless.
And then we stop and ask ourselves: How did that happen? There may have been no big changes in life, we haven’t lost any friends nor have our debts suddenly spiraled out of control. Nothing’s changed, but the joy has somehow gone out of life and been replaced with a sort of generalized distress and listlessness.
Although persistent periods of distress and exhaustion often seem to arrive from nowhere, there are underlying processes going on in the background of the mind that were only unraveled in the 1990s and early 21st century. And with this understanding has come the realization that we can “step outside” of our troubles and liberate ourselves from unhappiness, anxiety, stress, exhaustion and even depression.
When we’re unhappy it’s natural to try to figure out why we’re feeling this way and to find a way of solving the problem of unhappiness. But tension, unhappiness or exhaustion aren’t “problems” that can be solved. They are emotions. They reflect states of mind and body. As such, they cannot be solved—only felt. Once you’ve felt them—that is, acknowledged their existence—and let go of the tendency to explain or get rid of them, they are much more likely to vanish naturally, like the mist on a spring morning.
Allow us to explain this seemingly heretical idea. Why do your best efforts to get rid of unpleasant feelings backfire so tragically? When you try to solve the “problem” of unhappiness you deploy one of the mind’s most powerful tools: rational critical thinking.
Your Brain’s “Doing” Mode
It works like this: you see yourself in a place (unhappy) and know where you want to be (happy). Your mind then analyzes the gap between the two and tries to work out the best way of bridging it. To do so, it uses its “Doing” mode (so called because it performs well in solving problems and getting things done). The Doing mode works by progressively narrowing the gap between where you are and where you want to be. It does so by subconsciously breaking down the problem into pieces, each of which is solved in your mind’s eye and the solution reanalyzed to see whether it’s got you closer to your goal.
It often happens in an instant and we’re frequently not even aware of the process. It’s a tremendously powerful way of solving problems. It’s how we find our way across cities, drive cars and arrange hectic work schedules. In a more refined form, it’s how the ancients built the pyramids and navigated the world in primitive sailing ships, and it is helping humanity to solve many of our most pressing problems.
Solving the “Problem” Makes it Worse
It’s perfectly natural, then, to apply this approach to solving the “problem” of unhappiness. But it’s often the worst thing you can do because it requires you to focus on the gap between how you are and how you’d like to be: in doing so, you ask such critical questions as, What’s wrong with me? Where did I go wrong? Why do I always make these mistakes? Such questions are not only harsh and self-destructive, but they also demand that the mind furnishes the evidence to explain its discontent. And the mind is truly brilliant at providing such evidence.
Of course, nobody broods over problems because they believe it’s a toxic way of thinking. People genuinely believe that if they worry enough over their unhappiness they will eventually find a solution. They just need to make one last heave–think a little more about the problem … But research shows the opposite: in fact, brooding reduces our ability to solve problems; and it’s absolutely hopeless for dealing with emotional difficulties.
The evidence is clear: brooding is the problem, not the solution.
Awareness to End the Vicious Cycle
You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, negative self-talk and judgmental ways of thinking–but what you can stop is what happens next. You can stop the vicious circle from feeding off itself and triggering the next spiral of negative thoughts. And you can do this by harnessing an alternative way of relating to yourself and the world.
The mind can do so much more than simply analyze problems with its Doing mode. The problem is that we use the Doing mode so much, we can’t see that there is an alternative. Yet there is another way. If you stop and reflect for a moment, the mind doesn’t just think. It can also be aware that it is thinking. This form of pure awareness allows you to experience the world directly. It’s bigger than thinking. It’s unclouded by your thoughts, feelings and emotions. It’s like a high mountain–a vantage point–from which you can see everything for many miles around.
Pure awareness transcends thinking. It allows you to step outside the chattering negative self-talk and your reactive impulses and emotions. It allows you to look at the world once again with open eyes. And when you do so, a sense of wonder and quiet contentment begins to reappear in your life.
The Benefits of Mindful Meditation
Numerous psychological studies have show that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to longer and healthier life.