Thinking, overthinking, unthinking

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Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787); the philosopher thinking at the point of death

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley has made a succinct diagnosis of many of our problems: ‘Thinking is what gave humans ascendancy. But overthinking is threatening to bring us down.’ His argument is thoughtful and interesting. Overthinking, in Rice-Oxley’s view, is one of the roots of individual unhappiness and the wider social malaise that has led to Brexit and Trump. This overthinking takes the form of agonizing over past and future (whereas other animals, so far as we can tell, think only in the present, humans are unique in their ability to extend thought backwards and forwards in time) and ‘destructive’ introspective thinking that ‘is in thrall to the rigid, judgmental thoughts we think about ourselves’ and leads to ‘impossible expectations… [and] disappointment’. Our constant self-evaluation, and the self-laceration and disappointment that follows, ‘embeds personal misery’ in a soil of excessive rumination, distorted and exaggerated ideas, and the sense that our lives do not match up to those of others. Hence it is that in ‘the richest, healthiest, most prosperous era we have ever known’, so many people take the short step from unwarranted personal disappointment to blame and protest.

Rice-Oxley proposes that ‘we need a completely new relationship with our thoughts’. This would involve taking the world and ourselves as they are, not as we think they are, and the development of habits that favour observation over thinking; ‘it should be compulsory in secondary schools’, he writes, to learn the ‘psychological flexibility’ that helps us to ‘cultivate our observing selves, rather than our thinking selves’. In conclusion, Rice-Oxley urges us to let go of judging and worrying about ourselves and others, to limit our thinking to areas over which we have control, and to accept and celebrate things as they are. The influence of meditational ideas, in particular the practice of being present in the moment, are clear in this argument. As a whole, Rice-Oxley’s argument is reminiscent of quietism: quietist thinkers have argued that philosophy and reasoning have tended to sow confusion and disturbance, and that mental tranquillity can be achieved by learning to accept the universe we inhabit and who we are rather than to question them.

There are undeniable virtues in this argument. Learning to accept the things we cannot control, to cultivate a less judgmental and hypercritical evaluation of ourselves, to embrace experience rather than agonize about it: these are healthy practices that almost certainly improve mental well-being. By definition, like over-anything, overthinking is problematic: an excess of anything—put the word ‘over’ before eating, stimulation and working, for example—invariably results in negative outcomes. The pertinent question, however, is not whether overthinking is bad, since I can accept that overthinking, unlike thinking, is rarely helpful. The important questions (and perhaps I am overthinking it) are whether Rice-Oxley is right in his understanding of the distinction between thinking and overthinking, and whether his proposed solution to the individual and collective problems of our time is the correct one. The answer to both those questions is, in my view, that he is wrong. If there is a problem in our time, it is not that we overthink things; it is that we think badly, or we don’t think at all.

Consider, for example, Rice-Oxley’s view that we are ‘prisoners of the sinewy web of cogitation that tells us we are strong, clever, important, unassertive, patriotic, hopeless, old, fat, hard done by, forgotten’. But in so far as people obsess about these things, and become miserably trapped in narrow, impossible and harmful labels, is this really the result of overthinking? More likely it is that we engage with these categories, labels, standards and expectations in unthinking ways. We let social media or the judgments of others or the opinions of crowds or the mantra of ‘commonsense’ do our thinking for us; our response is too often uncritical and bereft of serious thinking. It is not that we should stop thinking about ourselves, or about our identities and our position relative to other people and the world, but rather that we should learn to think about these things more skilfully and perceptively. The worries, agonies and unhealthy self-criticism that beset so many people stem not from overthinking, but from not thinking enough and from not being equipped to think well. Rice-Oxley likens all the thoughts we encounter to being pulled under by ‘a busy stream’: repeatedly submerged, we should learn how to pull ourselves out so that we can ‘sit undisturbed’ and simply notice the stream. There are certainly times when it is good to do this; but life is a multitude of rushing streams, and we would be better off learning to become strong swimmers, able to survive and thrive in the streams, than to yearn only to sit on the bank observing the stream flow by.

Rice-Oxley provides several concrete examples of the tendency for overthinking to lead to an unhealthy temptation to compare oneself with others, and then onto personal unhappiness; one is ‘the employee who feels insecure because she thinks the boss blanked her on the stairwell’. Rice-Oxley’s argument seems to be this: the employee is giving too much thought to an incident that does not warrant it; she should instead accept the incident, not worry about it (and hence no longer feel insecure) and move on. This is based on the important (and correct) point that the way we think things are is generally not the way things actually are. In this case, although the employee ‘thinks’ the boss blanked her, it is just as likely (in the absence of any other evidence) that the boss was distracted, or absent-minded, or caught up in his own (over)thinking to notice her. The best advice to the employee in line with Rice-Oxley’s argument is therefore: don’t overthink it, simply observe the incident, and the feelings it prompted, then let it flow by.

But this sounds both idealistically simple and impossibly unrealistic. A relevant philosophical point here concerns the distinction between the way things are and the way we think things are. While reality certainly exists outside our thoughts, our only access to that reality is via our thoughts. At the heart of the human condition is the fact that we are bounded (or ‘trapped’ to put it more negatively) by our thoughts. We can never grasp reality as it is; the best we can hope for is to grasp reality as we think it is. Rice-Oxley seems to suggest that if we stopped thinking we might come to see reality as it is—an argument that seems to me both mystical and mysterious. Without thought, how would the employee ever get close to the reality of the blanking incident? If she successfully manages not to think about it, she will be none the wiser about the true nature of the incident.

Of course, that may be the point: the incident does not deserve either thought or the feeling of insecurity that supposedly follows from thought, so there is little to be gained from attempting to understand its reality. It presumably follows that whenever we are apparently blanked by somebody—be it boss, friend, family member, colleague, or a shop assistant—we should not give the matter any thought. But is that either practical or desirable? While the individual who manages to treat all such incidents with serenity and unconcern may be admirable, these things are important and deserve our attention. A great deal hinges on our interpersonal relationships, and they require more than unthinking acceptance of the way they appear to be; they demand careful thought and work. We may not be able to control how others think of us, but we can influence it: for example, we can address problems, smooth over tensions, and seek clarity about relationships. But in order to do this we need not only to observe but to think about what we observe.

In so far as Rice-Oxley’s insecure employee has a thought-related problem, it is not that she is overthinking the incident but that she is not thinking about it with sufficient acumen. She is guilty of faulty thinking: she is leaping to unjustified assumptions and catastrophizing the incident on the basis of little evidence. Of course, her insecurity may derive from a wider context; for example, her boss may have been critical of her work, and she may have heard convincing rumours that her company was planning to downsize. But let’s assume in the absence of that context that there is no reason beyond the incident itself why she should feel insecure. Her best approach is to consider the incident thoughtfully, critically and rationally. She might examine why it made her feel insecure; she might question whether the incident was all that it seemed; she might challenge her initial assumptions about it; she might, after a careful assessment of the incident, her perception of it, and her feelings about it, decide on an appropriate response—which may be to recognize it as inconsequential and not a reason to feel insecure, and hence to accept it and move on. It will take more than an observing self to get to this position; it will take a well-cultivated thinking self.

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The relationship between thought, emotion and behaviour according to Cognitive behavioural therapy

While learning to cultivate a more observational and accepting approach to life through practices such as meditation and mindfulness makes a valuable contribution to mental health, a more solid foundation is offered by the principles underlying Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A therapeutic approach with proven success at treating problems such as anxiety, stress and depression, CBT not only focuses on resolving faulty thought processes (for example, by learning to identify and challenge all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing thoughts, unfounded assumptions, unwarranted self-criticism, and so on) but also offers a better model for understanding human nature than that implied by Rice-Oxley’s article. The latter treats the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour as unidirectional: for example, someone who thinks other people are better off than him will feel miserable, and this unhappiness will lead him to express his disappointment (perhaps by voting for Brexit or Trump). It is this model which underpins Rice-Oxley’s main argument: if we cut down on thinking we will feel less miserable (and hence not do stupid things like vote for Brexit or Trump). CBT’s model is also based on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but understands the relationship between them as constituting a loop in which each element both influences and is influenced by the other two. According to CBT, therefore, the trick is not to replace thinking with acceptance but to recognize how our thoughts impact on our feelings and behaviour and and vice versa. In this feedback loop, well-being is achieved not by attempting to reduce one of the elements but by cultivating healthy practices in all three. Learning to calm one’s feelings, to alter bad behavioural habits, and to correct faulty thinking work together as a mutually beneficial package.

Nevertheless, Rice-Oxley is right to identify overthinking as a problem. But overthinking only superficially involves an excessive quantity of thinking; the real cause of overthinking is poor quality of thought. The solution to the problem is not, therefore, to counter overthinking with observation but to counter it with better quality thinking. Indeed, the most insidious problem today is more likely to be the poor quality of much thought, which extends to unthinking. The individual made miserable by her Instagram feed, the person demoralized by the success of others, or the hypochondriac forever convinced that he is dying (all examples from Rice-Oxley’s article) are arguably not guilty of overthinking but of not thinking enough—and certainly of not thinking with sufficient quality. It is precisely the failure to cultivate the thinking self that lies at the root of these problems; to argue that the cultivation of the observational self is the answer is to miss the point. Mindfulness will provide one useful form of self-protection, but the person who has not developed the thinking skills necessary for insightful self-understanding and rational and critical engagement with others will lack the mental resources to weather the type of buffeting we all receive from social media, the actions and judgments of others, the expectations of marketing and media, and the daily disappointments of the news.

Finally, perhaps the most disquieting conclusion of Rice-Oxley’s article is the suggestion that we should aim at a passive acceptance of ourselves and the world. The argument that people should celebrate what they have and stop being disappointed at what they don’t have is always easier to make from the vantage point of having more things than the next person. In a world of gross inequality—an inequality that is staggering even within apparently prosperous countries such as the UK and the US, and an inequality that is as much to do with unequal life chances and opportunities as it is to do with economic disparities—a habit of observing and accepting these inequalities rather than thinking about their inherent unfairness (and doubtless feeling justifiably unhappy and angry as a result) serves only the interests of those who benefit from inequality. Disappointment and unhappiness are vital driving forces for both personal and social change. If we all learned to ‘simply take as we find’ and to ‘accept that some things will not always go as we wish’, then there would be no resistance to social and political wrongs—and, moreover, there wouldn’t be the impulse to make personal improvements. The moment we embrace only those things we can control and influence, and give up thinking about everything else, is the moment we abandon our wider connection to society and the world. A life spent observing the stream of thoughts rather than immersing oneself in them is a life of disengaged quietitude.

It is not mindful observation and acceptance that should be compulsory in schools; it is psychology and philosophy. In ancient Athens Socrates devoted his life to going beyond observation and acceptance into thought. His cultivation of the thinking self was inspirational to his many followers, but deeply troubling to the state. So he was put on trial for corrupting youth; he was accused of encouraging them to embrace thinking (or overthinking in the eyes of the authorities) that led to impiety. After he was convicted and sentenced to death, he is supposed to have uttered his most famous dictum: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But Socrates would not have wanted his followers simply to observe and accept this dictum. He would have wanted them to think about his trial and execution, and to ask: Should one prefer the refusal of Socrates to abandon thinking, or the insistence of the Athenian state that he and his followers should learn to observe and accept? It’s a question that deserves a lot of thought.

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