Thinking Fast, Feeling Good?

New research explores the link between thought speed and mental health.

Posted Sep 30, 2018

Depression is related to slower thoughts and feeling tired and worn down. Much research has found that thinking more quickly is associated with heightened positive mood. It also increases feelings of power, creativity, and self-esteem. As such, it makes sense to test if depression could be reduced, even a little, by simply encouraging people to think more quickly.

New research tested this. In short, it depends how depressed a person is. 

Psychologists at Princeton University and Gaucher College had participants complete the Beck Depression Inventory (measuring, for instance, sadness, belief someone is being punished, guilt, irritation and loss of interest) before randomly assigning half of them to think more quickly during a task. Not long after this, each participant's mood and level of depression were assessed. 

The results showed that for people with no depressive symptoms, and for people with low to moderate levels of depressive symptoms, thinking quickly increased positive mood. But for people with high levels of depressive symptoms, thinking faster had no impact on positive mood.

Negative mood and depression (measured after the thought speed exercise) were not impacted by thinking faster, regardless of depression level. 

This work suggests that for most people, thinking faster even for a short time could heighten positive mood. But, it does not seem to have an impact on negative feelings, or for people who are really depressed. 

Research has also found that increasing thought speed increases positive affect even in comparison to not giving directions to participants about how quickly to think. Past work often relied on comparing fast thinking manipulations to slow thinking manipulations which meant the effect could've been due to slow thinking reducing positive mood, as opposed to quick thinking increasing it.

Not all the effects of heightened thought speed are (necessarily) beneficial, however. Some research has found that manipulations that increase thought speed also increase risk taking. This included taking greater risks with money, and even more willingness to take drugs, damage property, and engage in unprotected sex. Interestingly, this was found to be due to increased thought speed reducing the belief that these behaviors would result in negative consequences.

This shows a potential downside to feeling positive emotions more generally. To the extent they mask negative emotions, they may impede on people engaging in self-protective behaviours. While positive affect has many benefits beyond merely feeling good, negative emotions are not always detrimental. 

For instance, people who report having the highest meaning in life are not the people who report feeling the most positive mood and the least negative mood; rather, they are people who feel a lot of positive mood and a mild amount of negative mood.

References

Yang, K., Friedman-Wheeler, D. G., & Pronin, E. (2014). Thought acceleration boosts positive mood among individuals with minimal to moderate depressive symptoms. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38(3), 261-269.