Pondering your failures in life? List as many as you can in 60 seconds. Or sprint around the corner. You'll feel better, I promise.
"Even if you're having negative thoughts about yourself, you're better off having them fast," insists psychologist Emily Pronin of Princeton University. "And the same is true for people having positive thoughts. People are happier when they race through those thoughts rather than when they think each one slowly."
In a set of studies led by Pronin, people who were made to think faster—by, say, timed brainstorming or reading text that scrolled quickly—were happier as a result. Plus, they felt more powerful, creative, and energetic.
Racing thoughts and euphoria have long been associated with mania, and a common symptom of depression is slow thinking. But it took these studies to show that merely increasing the speed of thinking itself causes a mood lift.
Pronin and fellow psychologist Daniel Wegner of Harvard can't explain the phenomenon they discovered. It may be that people associate the subjective feeling of racing thoughts with happiness and that acts as a cue when assessing one's mood. Or thinking fast may function as a dandy distraction. "We may be thinking so fast that we can't stress about other things in our lives and our thoughts can't wander to dark places," Pronin speculates.
However it works, the discovery may help explain some of our favorite addictions. Nicotine and caffeine have long been known to raise heart rate, improve mood, and enhance cognition. Ditto aerobic exercise. Pronin suspects that they all share at least one way of boosting mood—by speeding our thoughts.
The findings suggest that mania may be more of a thought disorder than a mood disorder, as inducing racing thoughts also brings on some of the grandiosity linked to true mania. Intentionally thinking fast might spark mania lite, allowing us to experience the exhilarating effects of speed without the full-blown pathology.
By manipulating your own thought speed with some simple tasks, it may be possible to boost your mood or kick yourself out of a mild funk. "We know that fast thinking feels good," Pronin says, "even if we only feel like we're thinking fast."
You can reap the benefits of fast thinking while sitting at your desk, waiting in line at the post office, or drinking your morning coffee.
In 60 seconds
Brainstorm your top 10 dream vacation destinations
List the 15 favorite people in your life
Write 20 three-letter words
Say 30 words that begin with "M"
Set your screen saver to scroll
quickly through inspirational quotes
Rapidly recount a story to friends
Scan headlines of a newspaper quickly
Play Boggle, charades, or Taboo
Get up and do a set of jumping jacks