In 1637 the philosopher Rene Descartes despaired of ever understanding whether he really existed and gave us the memorable conclusion, cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." The fact that he could think made his life real.
Descartes figured out that thinking determines existence --- not feeling.
I'm amazed, though, that he didn't hit his head with a frying pan and yell out in pain, concluding, "I feel, therefore I am." Because often in life, feeling is dominant.
Which is why, if you're a woman wanting to lose weight by keeping a food journal, you won’t (if you’re wise) tape a photo of a size 3 model on your food diary. That image of super-perfection will create an impossible goal and you'll give up in despair. You'll feel "I can't do that!" and eat too much.
William Wordsworth said, in the 1830s,, "Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd." Wordsworth did not have a high opinion of the ability to think.
Let’s test Wordsworth’s view. Now that everyone has access to a galaxy of facts and historical data via the internet, have we become better thinkers over the past few decades? Can we think ourselves into a healthier diet? Or a more effective political system? Or an economy not ruled by boom and bust?
No—definitely no. But why not? In this (and the following two columns) I’m going to review what I've learned about thinking.
To begin with, there are two fundamental categories of thought. One is "emotionally reactive thinking," which is what 90% of people do 90% of the time -- to their personal and society's detriment.
The sentence "It feels good" describes the emotional process behind this: excitement, pleasure, maybe even retribution or revenge.
The most common reactive emotion that influences our behaviors is fear (anxiety, distress, nervousness, even stress). "I was so stressed out I needed to _______ "
In these cases the second type of thinking process, which involves a careful analysis of real facts, doesn't control the response. Past events and their related emotions drive our current behaviors far too often.
Here's a simple example. You and your spouse are driving to an event. Five minutes after leaving home your spouse says, "Darn, I forgot to turn off the stove."
Needing to return home triggers anxiety because you think you'll be late---and you hate being late. Acting on that anxiety you blurt out, "How could you be so careless?"
Your spouse retorts, "Me—careless? What about when you forgot...!?" Now you've started an argument, which ruins the evening.
Notice that thinking didn't prompt you to criticize your spouse. It was your anxiety. Your emotional reaction to being late to the event. If you had thought before responding, you'd know that your words would change nothing and in fact only create more anxiety, as well as anger.
So why did you say something that's obviously not in your best interest? Because the emotion of anxiety (subtle as it may be) triggered a "thoughtless" action.
Now multiply your response by the millions of actions by billions of people.
Over the next two columns I'll discuss how to think more and feel less before you decide to act.