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How Cognitive Control Can Boost Well-Being

Why controlling your mind is an important step to improving your well-being.

Key points

  • Cognitive control is a skill anyone can learn to have more conscious control over troublesome thoughts and harmful behaviors.
  • Some cognitive control strategies involve reminiscing about past enjoyments and imagining positive future outcomes.
  • It's also important to learn to be present and cultivate awareness of thoughts and emotions as they arise in order to deal with them better.
 Jerzy Górecki/Pixabay
Source: Jerzy Górecki/Pixabay

The number of studies on happiness and well-being has grown significantly in recent years. As a result of these studies, we now know that engaging in practices like mindfulness and gratitude can be good for well-being. But what are we actually doing when we engage in practices like these? Well, it is known as cognitive control.

Cognitive control refers to using our minds to steer our behaviors and experiences towards better outcomes by overriding habits and other automatic tendencies. For example, we can use cognitive control to rein in our typical reactions (e.g., anger when being cheated), to override habits or automatic behaviors (e.g., reaching for cake when tired), and to quiet troublesome thoughts and feelings (e.g., worry about succeeding). A recent research review suggests that cognitive control may just be the best tool we have to improve our well-being (click here for a well-being quiz).

So what are some of the best ways we can use cognitive control to improve our lives? Here are a few strategies you can try today.

1. Cultivate awareness.

The very first step in getting control of your brain is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings in the first place. Awareness includes the ability to identify and label thoughts, emotions, and related bodily sensations.

We can increase self-awareness through exercises like focusing on our breathing and engaging in mindfulness. Instead of incessantly pushing our thoughts away—or distracting ourselves from them—we observe them with interest and curiosity. As a result, we can better understand what we actually think and how these thoughts make us feel. Taking control of our minds in this way can be a great first step to boosting our well-being.

2. Focus on positive aspects of the future.

Shifting our attention is one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive control toolbox. More specifically, shifting our attention away from negative things and onto positive or even neutral things can improve our well-being. And we can use this strategy to improve our mood before, during, and after events.

Focusing on upcoming positive events is a relatively easy way to generate positive emotions. Plus, it may be an effective way to feel better even when things in the present are not going so well. That’s because when we do this, we’re generating positive emotions about an event that hasn’t even happened yet.

To use this strategy, take a moment to think about an upcoming positive event. For example, you might focus on a big thing, like the joy you will experience on your wedding day, or a small thing, like how great it will feel to get off work and relax on the couch. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and visualize sitting on that couch. It doesn’t really matter what the event is, so long as you focus on the positive aspects of your future.

3. Imagine the best possible outcomes.

In addition to focusing on the good stuff we know is coming in the future, we can also focus on positive possibilities that are not yet known. This is one way that cognitive control can be used to improve our well-being even when we can’t think of anything concrete to look forward to. Rather than thinking negative thoughts about how we could fail or struggle, we make an effort to think about how things could go really well, lead to success, or even completely change our lives for the better.

For example, if you’re preparing for a really tough meeting, imagine that perhaps the meeting goes great and even leads to an introduction to someone who changes your life for the better. Regardless of whether our thoughts and expectations turn out to be true, this type of cognitive control helps us put our minds at ease, which is often good for well-being.

4. Focus on the present moment.

Focusing on the present moment is another strategy that’s good for our well-being. For example, we might savor the positive moments by trying to feel and experience them fully. When we savor, we pay attention to all the good parts of what we are experiencing right now. We might stop to smell the roses or pay extra attention to how good the sun feels on our shoulders. As a result, we feel more positive emotions.

Plus, focusing on the present moment appears to be beneficial even if we’re not feeling especially positive. This type of present awareness is often referred to as mindfulness, and it has been shown to improve mental health, at least in some circumstances. With mindfulness, instead of letting our minds wander, get caught up in negative thoughts, or spin out on what it all means, we focus on what’s happening right in front of us in real life. And doing so tends to be good for our well-being.

5. Reframe your experiences.

Cognitive reappraisal is another cognitive control strategy that has been shown to be good for well-being. Cognitive reappraisal is often used in response to negative or stressful experiences to improve our emotional experience. For example, if you just lost your job, you might use cognitive reappraisal to change the way you’re thinking about the situation. Rather than thinking about the challenges that lay ahead, you might instead try to think about what you are learning from this experience or how this experience is good because now you can pursue a job you really want. By shifting your thoughts about your present experience, you shift your emotions in ways that can improve well-being.

6. Bring to mind good things from the past.

All of us have positive memories stored away that we can use to help us feel better in the present. For example, we can reminisce on good times, think about what we’re grateful for, or reflect on things that helped us grow or gave our lives meaning. By using cognitive control to tap into the past, we can bring back some of the positive emotions we already experienced.

Common ways to access these positive memories include writing about past positive events, analyzing them, or replaying them in our minds. The more positive details we can recall, the better we are likely to feel. So when thinking about past positive events, try to recall who was there, what the environment was like, what you thought about, and what you felt like. By doing so, you generate more positive emotions that can contribute to greater happiness.

In sum

As you can see, there are a variety of different cognitive control strategies that contribute to well-being. And remember, cognitive control is a skill. It can be strengthened but it takes time and practice. Take a moment to write down one strategy that might work for you, and make a commitment to try it out for one week. Who knows what might happen.

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Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Positive interventions: An emotion regulation perspective. Psychological bulletin, 141(3), 655.

Lane, R. D., Quinlan, D. M., Schwartz, G. E., Walker, P. A., & Zeitlin, S. B. (1990). The Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale: A cognitive-developmental measure of emotion. Journal of personality assessment, 55(1-2), 124-134.

Wolkin, J. R. (2015). Cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation accounts for psychological well-being through decreased rumination. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 8: 171–180

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