Happiness Research: Quieting the Mind

It's harder (and easier) than you think
July 15, 2013 Updated: July 15, 2013

Western psychologists have been confirming what Eastern Buddhists have known for centuries: that over-thinking is one of the greatest enemies of happiness.

Why do we over-think?

Well, while having an active mind isn’t unique to our present time, as the world has grown more complex and the amount of information we take in each day has expanded exponentially, our minds are increasingly thrown into a thinking/processing loop from which it’s difficult to escape.

Meditation can guide the mind out of this loop, at least briefly, by first limiting the amount of external stimuli to which we’re exposed. That our brains keep generating internal thoughts even when external inputs are reduced is to be expected.  

Yet with time and practice, eventually the brain does quiet down, giving us a chance to experience moments of serenity we’d be unlikely to have by simply going about our normal, active lives.

That meditation can be hard (I stress this to clients all the time), because it’s antithetical to how the world operates; it is, in a sense, other-worldly—and purposefully so. Thus we may need to accept that in order to help the mind think less, we have to “leave the world” in a symbolic or literal sense as a pre-requisite.

With this in mind, I offer this simple exercise for the July 4th holiday:  

1.  Take yourself to a place that feels very different from your daily life and is relatively devoid of activity so your primary senses (auditory, visual, olfactory) are allowed to rest. Some suggestions include a house of worship, the beach, or a quiet room in a museum or library.  

2.  Once there, close your eyes and follow your breath using meditation-style deep/diaphragmatic breathing. For the first 10 minutes, notice where your thoughts wander, accepting that they may initially go into overdrive to compensate for the lack of external information.

3.  For the next 10 minutes—if you find yourself still over-thinking—gently tell your thoughts that you appreciate their presence, but are asking them to be quiet for a few moments. 

4.  After 20 minutes decide whether you would like to stay in this state of sitting and breathing or whether you are ready to leave. Whenever you do leave, take a moment to first notice how you feel.   

5.  Lastly, whisper or speak out loud a promise to yourself to return in a month to this or another quiet place to sit and breathe again. New research suggests you’re more likely to follow through with a goal if you speak it out loud or whisper it to yourself, rather than simply saying it silently in your head.  If you can return more often, that’s great, but at least see if you can give yourself permission to do a once-monthly check-in.

The inspiration for this column came from a Q&A from the APA Monitor’s website with psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the 2007 book “The How of Happiness:  A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.”

Dr. Wylie Goodman is a licensed, clinical psychologist who works with English speakers worldwide via Skype and in person in her office in New York City. Her practice, East-West Psychotherapy & Coaching, specializes in integrating Buddhist-based approaches to mental wellness with Western methodologies grounded in cognitive-behavioral and existential theories. www.east-westpsychotherapy.com