Limits of Reflection

I have always valued what Socrates recommended — the examined life, the reflective life; to turn inward, thinking about how we might improve ourselves and improve the state of the world as well.  Certainly nice thoughts, but does reflecting on past behaviours and modifying future behaviours really do us, or anyone else any good?  Pulitzer Prize wining poet Theodore Roethke suggests caution when he wrote, “Self-contemplation is a curse/That makes an old confusion worse.”

And taking a look at recent research on self-knowledge and happiness, Roethke just might have a point.  Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia, author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, writes: “Not sure about how you feel about a special person in your life?  Analyzing the pluses and minuses of the relationship might not be the best idea.”

In Wilson’s research, one group of people was asked to list the reasons why their relationship with a 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 gave their “gut” reactions.

Surely those who thought about relationship details would be best at figuring out how they really felt and surely their satisfaction ratings would do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.          In fact, the reverse was true — those people who reported their “gut” feelings accurately predicted whether they would still be dating their partners several months later.  As for the more reflective ones, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the course of their relationships.         Wilson concludes that too much analysis tends to confuse people about how they really feel.

Self-reflective analyses are particularly problematic when we are feeling depressed or “blue.”  When people are “down,” ruminating about their problems may make things worse.

University students who were mildly depressed were asked to spend eight minutes thinking about themselves or spend eight minutes thinking about commonplace topics, such as “the clouds in the sky.” Those in the first group focused on the negative things in their lives and sank into deeper depression.  People in the “cloud” group  felt better afterward; the distraction took away their negative focus on themselves.

What may be even more important than distracting ourselves is to move from reflection to actions.  Aristotle once said: “We become just by the practice of just behaviors; self-controlled by exercising self-control; courageous by performing acts of courage.”  If Aristotle is right, when we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, the most therapeutic as well as wisest approach might be to act more like that person we might like to be, rather than indulging in prolonged self-analysis.

Other research suggests that people given an opportunity to do a favor for another person, viewed themselves as a kind, more considerate person — that is, until they were asked to reflect on their motives for doing the favour.  People who thought about the “whys” of the kind act, did not view themselves as favourably.  Apparently what makes most sense is simply being kind to others without thinking too much about why we are being kind.

So as our new academic year begins, perhaps the best advice, at least surrounding kindness, is that you and I should reach out and touch others, and assist others as often as we can.  As Aristotle suggests, being good to others makes us kinder as well as happier individuals.  So we should simply make a habit of being nice — but we shouldn’t give it too much thought.

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