I’ve discovered an almost uncannily effective strategy to keep myself from going into downward spirals of resentment, blame, and self-accusation — when, for instance, I find myself brooding over thoughts like, “I’m not getting enough work done” or “My daughters don’t get along very well.”
When I realize I’m having thoughts like this (and I’ll admit, just realizing that I’m having this kind of thought is a challenge in itself), I “make the positive argument.”
As a consequence of a psychological phenomenon that might be called “argumentative reasoning,” we’re very skillful at arguing a particular case. When we take a position, we look for evidence to support it, and we find reasons that prove our point, and then we stop, satisfied. This mental process gives us the illusion that our position is objective and well justified.
However — and this is the useful point — if we try to argue the very opposite position, we can often make that case just as easily. If I tell myself, “I’m a shy person,” I marshal examples of my shyness; if I tell myself, “I’m an outgoing person,” I remember times when I was outgoing. I’m able to argue both conclusions quite persuasively.
To make use of this phenomenon, I resolved to “Make the positive argument” to challenge my critical thoughts about myself or other people. (It’s nice to have a way to turn my natural belligerence to good purpose.)
“Make the positive argument” also helps me combat my decided habit of unconscious overclaiming (what a great two-word phrase, I should add it to my list!). In “unconscious overclaiming,” we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people. Studies showed that when wives and husbands estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent.
Now, when I start muttering, “My husband doesn’t help us get organized for trips,” I argue to myself, “Actually, he does help us get organized for trips.” And I realize, he does.
Try it yourself! Did it work?
I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.
* I loved this infographic about the most common words in horoscopes. From my eye-balling of the chart, it looks as though “feel” and “sure” are the two most common words. I also enjoyed the meta-horoscope made of the most common words from 4,000 star sign prediction.
* Is your book group reading The Happiness Project? I’ve prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, prayer circles, spirituality book groups, and the like. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both), email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. (Don’t forget the “1.”)