When was the last time you changed your mind?
I’m not talking about minor stuff (“my favorite color is now blue”), or situations where you chalk up the intensification of a previously held opinion as changing your mind (“I used to think this group was bad, but now I”ve come to realize they’re the devil incarnate”). I mean, when did you change your mind about something truly important?
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, recently wrote a great book about the importance of changing our mind, cleverly titled Think Again. In many ways, it’s a book-length refutation of one of humanity’s mental quirks: confirmation bias. Simply, confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out only the information which confirms something we already believe, or interpret information through this same filter. Not surprisingly, confirmation bias is one of the key fuel sources that drives the political infotainment industry today.
Frankly, we’re never going to outwit our biases. But we can be more aware of them. Here’s an excerpt from the book. The last sentence made me laugh (because it’s sort of true):
Rethinking isn’t a struggle in every part of our lives. When it comes to our possessions, we update with fervor. We refresh our wardrobes when they go out of style and renovate our kitchens when they’re no longer in vogue. When it comes to our knowledge and opinions, though, we tend to stick to our guns. Psychologists call this seizing and freezing. We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995.
If you’re interested in cognitive biases and the role they play in our everyday thinking, as I am, I recommend Grant’s book. I also recommend How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (FYI, I receive Jacob’s weekly newsletter and enjoy it. You can view his website here).
Back to Adam Grant for a second.
As I was preparing to write this, I saw this column he published in The NY Times last week about the feeling many now have as the pandemic drags on. Titled “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” (subtitle: “The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.”). Since there’s a paywall, let me share a few excerpts from the column:
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.
Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.
So what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.
To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.
Another term for the emotion of listlessness or torpor (actually, torpor is a pretty good word in its own right) is acedia, which was a demon that desert monks wrote about as far back as the early 5th century – which is yet another reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.
I hope you find something interesting to think about here, and that you’re pursuing activities that put you in a state of flow.
Also published on Medium.