Get analysing: Why positive thinking isn’t going to help you improve, and the surprising thing that actually will

This brain has ditched positive thinking for reasoning and mental practice

It being the end of January as I write this, you’ve probably already had your fill of ‘New Year, New You’ style posts and articles extolling the virtues of total life changes and positive thinking. So I’m not going to write one – you’d only be bored! Instead, I’m going to do the opposite, and tell you to ditch the positive thinking for something far more effective.

Event-simulation vs positive thinking

It turns out that just trying to be positive and visualise nice and happy outcomes doesn’t actually have very much impact upon a person’s ability or motivation to solve the problems that they’re facing. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath recount an experiment that was done with a group of UCLA students. The students were divided into three groups. All groups were asked to think about a problem that was causing them stress, and all were given some basic instruction on problem solving.

The control group was sent home at this point. The second group, the ‘event-simulation’ group, were asked to visualise how the problem had unfolded. They had to simulate in their mind each step that led to the problem that they were now facing, remembering as far as possible what they had said and done. The third group, the ‘outcome-simulation’ group, were told to visualise how they would feel when the problem was solved. Groups 2 and 3 were then sent home with instructions to repeat the simulation for 5 minutes each day.

After a week, the groups were invited back to the lab in order to see which students had fared best in coping with their problems. The event simulation group members felt more positive about their problems; they had taken more specific actions to solve their problems; they had sought more outside help; they reported feeling like they had learned from the experience.[1]

FM Alexander – positive action, not positive thinking

What fascinated me when I read about this experiment was how much it reminded me of the process that FM Alexander engaged in when he began investigating the causes of the vocal problems that threatened his career. He didn’t just blindly trust the doctor, and he didn’t try to ‘feel more positive’ about getting better. Rather, he asked a fundamental question –

“is it not fair … to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”[2]

– went back to his study and thought really hard about exactly when he experienced the vocal difficulties. He made observations, made a hypothesis, and tested it. He didn’t sit around – he thought and then he acted.

We can all do this. We can be like the UCLA students and think back to when the problem we’re experiencing first appeared. We can trace our way through the different actions that affected it. And if we do this, we’ve got solid evidence on which to base our hypotheses and go about finding solutions.

Opening questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Is it something that I’m doing in the way I’m going about things that causes the problem?
  • When did it first appear?
  • Does it get worse at specific times?
  • Does it get better at specific times?
  • Do I do a little bit of it all the time, or is it something that is completely specific to one activity or context?

I’m sure you can think of other questions that might be useful!

So, at the risk of sounding like a grump, try ditching positive thinking and replace it with ‘event-simulation’ thinking instead. And let me know what you discover.

[1], Heath, C. & Heath, D., Made to Stick, London, Random House, 2007, pp.210-211.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.25. Author’s italics.

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lesson thrills: what’s even better than having the good feelings last?

How long do good feelings last in AT lessons?

When students come in for Alexander Technique lessons, they enter an environment where they are encouraged to change their thinking, which changes the way they move. And this very often also brings about a change in the physical sensations that they feel. Very often, students report having great experiences: they feel lighter, or more open, or tingly, or just more awake and alive.

When we have Alexander Technique lessons, we often have good feelings as one of the outcomes. And we expect – or possibly just hope – for the good feelings to continue.

I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably won’t keep on feeling the lovely feelings that you experience immediately after making a change in your thinking and movement. There are good psychological and physiological reasons why this is true, and I’ll give you a quick summary of them below. And most importantly of all, today I want to explain why it’s actually a good thing that we ‘lose’ the good feelings.

Hedonic Adaptation: why psychology says the good feelings don’t last

According to Prof Laurie Santos in her popular Coursera course The Science of Wellbeing, hedonic adaptation is “the process of becoming accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time.” [1]

Cat and hot dogs - good feelings don't last

But what does this mean? It means that if you win the lottery, you think you’re going to experience a massive jump in your level of happiness. Actually, though, you initially won’t be as thrilled as you expect, and your happiness levels will drop to normal levels pretty quickly as you get used to having all the extra cash. Good things don’t affect us as positively as we predict, and bad things don’t hurt us as much as we fear.

Similarly, the cat in the meme above thinks he’s going to enjoy the seventh or eighth hot dog just as much as the first. But those of us who have ever binged on chocolate know that this just won’t be the case – you get used to the taste, and can even become tired of it! This is because your body is physiologically geared to get used to sensations, and then to discount them. Your taste buds stop registering a taste quite quickly; and even if they did, your brain is bombarded with so many pieces of sensory information every second that it couldn’t possibly process them all. It prioritises information that is new or vital to your continued existence, and junks the rest.

This is what happens to all those nice feeling sensations that students often experience as a result of changing their ideas and reducing their overall physical tension. Immediately after losing the tension, they feel fantastic. And understandably, they want to feel fantastic forever. But just the same way as one’s taste buds stop reacting to the delightful taste of chocolate, one’s brain stops registering the delightful feelings of freedom and lightness. They become normal. And if we carry on doing a positive behaviour for long enough, it becomes part of our normal happiness ‘set-point’, and we don’t register it.

But is that sad, or is that something to rejoice in?

Yay! – The good feelings don’t last!

You won’t notice those lovely feelings any more, because the change in thinking that generated them has become normal. Wow! That means you’ve made a substantive, lasting beneficial change to your life! It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.

But I would hope that we don’t just settle for the new improved way we are using ourselves and go blithely about our days. Why settle for good, when even better is just around the corner? If we keep thinking and keep experimenting, we open ourselves to more beneficial changes and more lovely sensations. And more than good feelings, we will be opening ourselves to the possibility of true wellbeing. FM Alexander wrote:

William James suggested to us that we should get up every morning looking for health. We hope to go further, for we have a technique to offer in this connection which will command for the human creature an increasingly high standard of that condition of psycho-physical functioning which makes for health … the all-important duty of the human creature … is that of the continuous individual cultivation of fundamental, constructive conscious control of the human psycho-physical organism and its potentialities. [2]

So if we want to be truly healthy, we need to move beyond living in a non-feeling daze, or even hoping for consistently feeling nice. We just have to keep exploring and improving the way we think.

[1] You’ll find the quote in Week 3, lecture 3.

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.391.

Overthinking – how it impedes your performance, and how to stop

Overthinking lightbulb

Overthinking – what it isn’t

I love thinking. I’m wholeheartedly with FM Alexander in his belief that modern society suffers from a dearth of rational thought, and that in the mind of humanity “lies [our] ability to resist, to conquer and finally to govern the circumstance” of our lives.[1] I think that the Alexander Technique provides a stunning framework for helping us to improve the way we think and, as a result, the way we move.

I’m also pretty convinced that most of us ‘think’ too darn much – the wrong sorts of thought, and in the wrong quantities. For example, in his book Do The Work writer Steven Pressfield identifies a type of junk thinking which clouds our thoughts and prevents us from following through on the process that will help us finish our creative projects. He calls it chatter.

“when I say “Don’t think,” what I mean is: don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to those rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind.”[2]

This type of thinking is destructive, but it isn’t the brand of problematic thinking that I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to warn you of the dangers of what I want to call ‘overthinking’. What I’m referring to is a brand of thinking that I see in good, conscientious students across many fields: music, Alexander Technique, writing, sport. It looks a bit like this:

Overthinking – case studies

  • The student who thinks so much about the details of going from sitting to standing that they are almost incapable of moving;
  • Recorder player so intent on making sure that every finger lands in the right place at the right time in a semi-quaver passage that they can’t play it fast enough and the passage falls into an untidy heap;
  • The championship-winning snooker player who works so hard going ‘back to basics’ on his cueing technique that he ends up arriving at every tournament with a different cue action.[3]

Overthinking is not a beginner fault. If you’re a beginner tennis player, you’re probably going to need to think carefully about the protocol for each shot that you play! But once you reach a certain standard of play, and you’re in the middle of a match, you probably need to start relying on the hard work you’ve done thinking about such things in your practice sessions. You have other things that need your conscious control and reasoning powers!

FM Alexander gave the example of a student who came to him wanting to improve his breathing. The student was teachable and ready to apply himself, and soon learned how to make a better use of his breathing mechanisms. FM continued:

Now it would be absurd to suppose that thereafter this person should in his waking moments deliberately apprehend each separate working of his lungs, any more than we should expect the busy manager of affairs constantly to supervise the routine of his well-ordered staff. He has acquired conscious control of that working, it is true, but once that control has been mastered, the actual movements that follow are given in charge of the “subconscious self” although always on the understanding that a counter order may be given at any moment if necessary.[4]

Note that last line: a counter order may be given at any moment, if it is considered necessary. That’s the difference between habitual movement and leaving the details up to the ‘subordinate controls of the body’. If we have done the work and really thought about how we want to carry out our activity, we can rest on it for as long as we think it useful or necessary. When it isn’t, we can send out different orders. We are still in control.

So do the work. Enjoy the work. And then allow yourself to reap the benefits of it.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat ed., p.17
[2] S Pressfield, Do the Work, Kindle ed., loc 256.
[3] Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ronnie, Orion 2003, p.158. He’s giving his opinion of Steve Davis.
[4] FM Alexander, MSI, p.60.
Image by bplanet from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 5. Keep experimenting

In my reading of FM Alexander’s works recently, I was reminded very strongly of the supreme importance of experimentation. Alexander writes:

“We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is an essential factor in their development.” *

The phrase in this that stopped me in my tracks was that first one, “the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day…” Is this me? I asked myself.

Is this you? And even if it is true of me or you, does it really matter if we do and think the same things day by day?

legoplay

Why it matters.

I am about to say something controversial. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if you decide to spend the next decade or three slumping. It isn’t going to kill you. With only a few potential exceptions, the way you sit or walk isn’t going to be a life or death issue.

But it is a quality of life issue.

If we choose to do the same things in the same way day after day, or worse, if we don’t even realise we are doing the same things in the same way day after day, we risk dulling our ability to be versatile. We lose our skill at rolling with the punches. Which means that when we experience some sort of (possibly externally initiated) form of sudden change, like an injury or illness or sudden redundancy from work, we struggle to know what to do.

 

Even if we don’t experience anything so major, if we stay content with doing and thinking the same stuff day by day, we risk a far more subtle kind of injury – the dulling of our enjoyment of things.

Alexander’s definition of happiness is the kind of absorption seen in a child doing something that interests it. And having watched my own son, what I have noticed is that this absorption is most apparent when he is experimenting.

He doesn’t build the same structures with his Lego, slavishly following the instruction book. He builds the bricks that way once, takes it apart, and then goes freeform. He experiments. He plays. He messes up, gets frustrated, pulls it apart, then tries again. And each thing he builds is fascinating.

According to Alexander, versatility is important. And we build versatility by playing and experimenting. We build it by getting things wrong, getting frustrated, going back to the beginning and trying again.

So. Tell me: what will you experiment with this week?

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.65.
Image by Afonso Lima, stock.xchng