Want to Be Happier? Think Less!
How Coaching Taught Me an Invaluable Lesson About Happiness
Dr. John Schinnerer
My parents were huge on academics. I learned to excel at school as a child in an attempt to make them proud. Along the way, I learned to think. A lot. I was very, very good at thinking. By the eighth grade, I could pick apart a classic novel, a blockbuster movie and people.
And you know what I found? All of that thinking, all of the following what adults told me I needed to do to be “successful,” all of the daily ass-busting to overachieve, none of that made me happy, contented or relaxed.
Sure, when I got a good grade on a test, I felt a momentary surge of pride and satisfaction. But it faded in seconds. I would spend days studying for a test, paying attention in class. I would crush the test. Get one of the best scores in the class. And the payoff? Mere seconds of positive emotion. On the flip side, while simultaneously excelling in school and sports, most of my time was spent in some degree of misery, depression, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and feeling as if I were not enough. So you do the math. Was it worth it? Perhaps there is a better way.
Fast forward to my early 20’s. I decided to volunteer as a coach for Special Olympics. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I had 20 athletes whom I coached in volleyball, softball and track and field. At the first practice, I was nervous. I hadn’t really spent any time around developmentally delayed people. So I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure how well I would do. I met my athletes and we started doing warm ups and then played some volleyball. The athletes laughed and giggled a lot. To me, it was weird. I’d had little experience with pure joy.
As the practices continued, I had a gradually dawning realization. The vast majority of my athletes were happy. In fact, they were far happier than I was!
I found myself in this Bizarro universe where up was down and down was up. Here I was, a young man who had done everything “right” in life – worked hard, studied well, got good grades, received awards, went to the best colleges – and I was anxious, depressed and miserable. And here were my developmentally delayed athletes who didn’t seem to have a care in the world, enjoyed themselves effortlessly, didn’t seem to worry about what others thought of them, and loved and accepted one another with relative ease. They were f**king happy. And I, I was not. What was wrong here? How could this happen?
It was my first inkling that excelling at thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be. I began to realize that people with a high IQ had more thoughts, more layers of thoughts, and faster, more insidious thoughts. And because of a little phenomenon known as the negativity bias, the vast majority of those thoughts are negative.
Let me explain the negativity bias. We are designed to overfocus on the negative. It is an evolutionary design to help keep us safe from threats. The negativity bias states that negative things, such as destructive emotions, self-punitive thoughts, negative judgments from others, or insults, have a greater effect on our psychological well-being than do neutral or positive things. What’s more, negative information seems to require greater mental processing than does positive information; we tend to chew on negative things more than positive things. For those people with a high IQ, and thus, more thoughts, this means that they have more cumulative negative thoughts.
For instance, check out this bit of hypothetical math I did for a presentation a few years ago. I was looking for research to peg the range of the number of thoughts we have each day. That research doesn’t exist to the best of my knowledge. So I improvised.
Assume you have one thought per second. Obviously, this can vary. But that seems reasonable. There are 86,400 seconds each day. Assuming we are asleep 8 hours a night (28,800 seconds), that leaves 57,600 seconds we are awake daily. The negativity bias shows that the negative is 3-5 times as powerful as the positive in our mind (Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M.F. 2005). So let’s say, on average, 70% of our thoughts are negative. This means we have a little over 40,000 negative thoughts every day. Ok, doesn’t seem like that much. Now let’s multiply those over a year. Forty-thousand negative thoughts a day times 365 days equals 14,716,800 negative thoughts per year. Thus, by the age of 32, discounting the first two years of life, the average person has told themselves over 441 million times “I am ______ [fill in the blank with your own mental rubbish].”
“I am worthless.” “I am an idiot.” “Why can’t I find someone who loves me?” “Why can’t I lose that weight?” “Why do I say such stupid shit?” And so on. You know what it sounds like. You are in your own head.
When I began this exercise, I wanted to prove to audiences that their thoughts matter. When I finished the exercise, the question morphed into, “At what point do you begin to believe those negative thoughts?” Because at those massive numbers, it’s only a matter of time, in my professional opinion, before you believe them. As a comparison, I guarantee that if you watch 440 million Pepsi commercials, you will begin to drink Pepsi, even if drinking it is a slow form of liquid suicide.
So I’m coaching my athletes, and I come to this epiphany…What if being smart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if being smart leads to more thoughts? And what if those thoughts are predominantly negative and lead to misery? And, at that moment, I found myself in the Bizarro world again. I realized I was jealous of my developmentally delayed athletes because they were happy. And I was not.
Recent work by a Professor at University of Texas indicates that those with higher IQs, a greater drive to achieve, advanced critical thinking and a stronger work ethic have more negative “mental chatter.” That is, they have greater misery. While those in the study predicted that 65-70% of their thoughts would be positive, after tracking their thoughts for 2 weeks, they found that up to 70% of their thoughts were negative. These negative thoughts fell into 3 general categories — feeling inferior, lack of love and relationships, and lack of control over themselves and others.
For this incredibly important reason, I teach mindfulness to all my clients, regardless of age. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner. It involves building the skill of bringing one’s attention to whatever is happening in the present moment – the breath, a candle flame, noises, etc. Learning mindfulness lays the foundation for greater awareness of what is taking place in the mind and in the body in the present moment. This awareness is necessary to be mindful of, to catch and to challenge negative thoughts in an effort to reprogram them to more supportive ones. This is a foundational skill for increasing one’s happiness and decreasing misery. And it is entirely learnable. By everyone at any age.
If you’d like to find out how to spend less time in misery, anxiety, anger or stress, please check out my online anger management classes (as well as anxiety management and positive psychology classes) at https://webangermanagement.com/shop/.
Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678–686
If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Prof. Raj Raghunathan. 2016. Ebury Press.