Think distant: the incredible power of abstract thought.
This mind hack is simple: you imagine yourself way off in the future, or living in a different country or as a different person. The aim is to have that feeling of detachment, of stepping outside yourself, by whatever means you can.
This puts you into an abstract or psychologically distant frame of mind that has all kinds of effects on your perceptions of the world. Here are ten of my favourite examples:
1. Make challenging tasks seem easier. When you are finding a task difficult, increasing your psychological distance from it makes it feel easier: “Activating an abstract mindset reduced the feeling of difficulty. A direct manipulation of distance from the task produced the same effect: Participants found the task to be less difficult when they distanced themselves from the task by leaning back in their seats.” (Thomas & Tsai, 2011) So, it’s just as true of physical distance as it is for psychological distance.
2. Generate self-insight. When things go wrong in life and you’re trying to work out why, psychological distance can help: “…directing people to analyze their feelings surrounding negative autobiographical experiences from a self-distanced perspective (i.e., thinking about oneself from the perspective of a “fly on the wall”), in comparison to a self-immersed perspective (first-person perspective), leads them to experience less emotional and physiological reactivity in the short term, while buffering them against negative outcomes associated with rumination over time.” (Ayduk & Kross, 2010)
3. Become more persuasive. When people are considering a purchase, they are more persuaded when the framing is psychologically distant: “Findings from two experimental studies, consistently show that consumers in a predecisional mindset (i.e., consumers still deliberating on an unresolved decision), are more likely to be persuaded by messages with psychologically distant orientation, which emphasize the future or target a distant other…” (Nenkov, 2012)
4. Gain emotional self-control. Psychological distance can give us emotional distance: “…negative scenes tended to be less negative and less emotionally arousing when imagined moving away, and the opposite when imagined moving toward the observer.” (Davis et al., 2011) If you are a very emotional person, psychological distance can be a useful technique to control your emotions: “a complementary matching of psychological distance to one’s habitual perspective generally leads to better emotion regulation; specifically, individuals with high avoidant attachment, who habitually distance themselves from their experiences, may benefit from psychological immersion, while individuals with high anxious attachment, who habitually immerse themselves in their experiences, may benefit from psychological distancing.” (Wang et al., 2012)
5. Beware the illusion of explanatory depth! Not all the effects of thinking abstractly are positive. One of the dangers of abstract thinking is that it leads us to think we understand something better than we do. This is called the ‘illusion of explanatory depth’: “…many people know vaguely that an earthquake occurs because two geological plates collide and move relative to one another, but again they know little about the mechanism that initially produces these collisions. Nonetheless, people believe they understand these concepts quite deeply, and are surprised by the shallowness of their own explanations when prompted to describe the concepts thoroughly.” (Alter et al., 2010) So: “Although folk wisdom suggests that we often fail to see the forest for the trees, sometimes the greater concern is that we fail to see the trees for the forest.” (Alter et al., 2010)
6. Be true to yourself. Psychological distance can make us less susceptible to social influence as it… “…can help to guide action at a distance by consistently reflecting a person’s core values and ideals, which are likely to be shared within important relationships or groups.” (Ledgerwood et al., 2010) In other words: when we think abstractly or with psychological distance we are truer to ourselves.
7. Become more polite. People tend to be more polite when they are thinking abstractly: “Eight studies showed that politeness is associated with high-level construal, temporal distance, and spatial distance.” (Stephan et al., 2010)
8. Fire your creativity. From Boost Creativity: 7 Unusual Psychological Techniques: “People often recommend physical separation from creative impasses by taking a break, but psychological distance can be just as useful. Participants in one study who were primed to think about the source of a task as distant, solved twice as many insight problems as those primed with proximity to the task (Jia et al., 2009).”
9. Improve your self-control. From How to Improve Your Self-Control: “…participants who had been encouraged to think in high-level, abstract terms demonstrated greater self-control in enduring the discomfort of the hand-grip in order to receive more accurate personality profiles.”
10. Trigger wise thoughts. Being wise means seeing the bigger picture. Abstract thinking and psychological distance can help you do that: “Two experiments demonstrate that cueing people to reason about personally meaningful issues (Study 1: Career prospects for the unemployed during an economic recession; Study 2: Anticipated societal changes associated with one’s chosen candidate losing the 2008 U.S. Presidential election) from a distanced perspective enhances wise reasoning (dialecticism; intellectual humility), attitudes (cooperation-related attitude assimilation), and behavior” (Kross & Grossmann, 2011).
Wisdom is not book learning, not instantly obtainable. Indeed, wisdom defies exact definition for to define it too tightly would be to curtail the breadth of its potential for self-growth. Wisdom comes with time, experience, and the willingness to maintain an open-mind about the world and all its people. While wisdom accumulates over the years, it requires constant filtering to remove the prejudices and bias that also accumulate, as well as constant reflection and a willingness to challenge one's own beliefs and values on occasion.
The essence of wisdom tends to be lauded in all cultures, and is often viewed as a state that leaves you calm, able to think through things before acting upon them, and not be someone who is easily caught up by the myriad fads and crazes pulsing through society at any time. Wisdom includes an ability to stand back and take in the bigger picture while still admiring the details that make things function well. With time, a wise person grows deeper in knowledge but does not abuse that knowledge by shutting out others or claiming to be the sole repository of ideas and answers; instead, a wise person willingly shares what they have learned and enables the growth of others willing to listen.
Confucius once said that "By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." These ideas are explored throughout the article, which is a starter guide for the person keen to focus a little more on the gaining of wisdom.
- Know yourself. While time-consuming and sometimes challenging, it is still easier to learn about everything and everyone else in the world than about yourself. The hardest journey is often the one that requires looking inside yourself honestly to work out what drives you and what beliefs, opinions, and biases you hold within. Unless you're willing to know yourself well and learn to love both the strengths and weaknesses within you, it is difficult to be wise. If you don't know yourself, you're more likely to succumb to covering up weaknesses and overplaying strengths instead of practicing self-acceptance and being honest. Knowing yourself provides the space in which you can err, grow, and forgive yourself as you journey through life.
- Be careful of the term "self-improvement". While this term means well, it presumes we're all a mess at the core and need sorting. Even if that is true, it does not help you any to be vulnerable to the advice drawn from another person's journey and to try and replace your experiences with theirs. By all means learn from the experiences of others who have made journeys of self-discovery but don't make the mistake of believing that their journey is the right one for you or that you can simply replace your experiences with theirs. You must do the hard work alone.
- Be wary of any self-improvement advice that claims to have "secrets". The only "secret" to self-improvement is that it requires hard work and constancy. Beyond that, you can fiddle at the edges (attested to remarkably by the massive success of the self-help industry) but you cannot change the reality of having to do the work of personal introspection and reflection on the world yourself.
- Realize that you know nothing. The wisest of people have long been those who realize they actually know very little – often in spite of decades of learning and reflecting. The more you think about people, things, and events, the more it becomes clear that there is always more to know and that what you do know is but a pinhead amid all knowledge. Acceptance of the limitations of your own knowledge is a key to wisdom.
- One of the key barriers to wisdom is over-reliance on or expectation of "expertise". We live in a world sold on the importance of expertise as a panacea for everything, including our own effort of thinking. Granted, many (certifiable) experts are clever and they do know a lot about their specialty. But to equate expertise with wisdom is to conflate the meanings of each term – expertise refers to someone's high level of knowledge in a distinct field, whereas wisdom refers to the broader concept of being able to see the bigger picture of life, to have considered responsiveness to all the things life throws at us, to live calmly reassured of life's purpose, and to never assume that there is necessarily an answer but still to be comfortable living with that reality.
- Mary Jaksch advises that now and then we need to adopt "beginner's mind". This is the mind of a person starting afresh, being challenged anew by doing something that you've never done before. This brings excitement into your life as well as having the potential to unnerve you because you're not an "expert" at it. In addition, she advocates "don't know" mind, a martial arts mindset that reflects the wisdom of the warrior. Rather than prejudging situations by what you do know, keep your mind open and tell yourself that "I don't know" and allow yourself to learn. When you cease to have a fixed idea of people, things, and situations surrounding you, you grow in wisdom because you soak up changes, new ideas, and don't set any person above or beneath you.
- Accept that there will never be an end to learning. If you thought the learning ended the moment you left high school or college, then you're in for a harsh perspective on life. The idea of learning is far broader than textbooks and what the teachers tell you; constant learning is the ability to stand still and question things that happen to you and to grow from your life's experiences. The problem with thinking that learning stops the moment you decide it stops, is that you cease to grow at that point and become set in your ways and beliefs. And once you start believing that the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and ideas that are in your head now are forever more all you ever need to know and trust, you shut yourself down to other people's perspectives and ways of seeing the world. This risks cessation of internal growth and being absolutely certain that anything you think or believe is right while anything that challenges your beliefs or thoughts is wrong. Anais Nin neatly summed up this need to continue learning: "Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death."
- Take time to contemplate. Wisdom cannot be hurried and it certainly cannot grow when the mind is feasting on pop culture and fast living. It is essential to take time out from everyday living just for thinking and reflecting over your own activities and over the wider happenings in the world and beyond. If you don't do this, you risk being reactive rather than proactive, an intellectually lazy response of not being bothered to make sense of the world yourself and happy to be carried along by the current.
- Practice being proactive by learning how to plan and strategize your efforts in life. Planning and strategizing requires downtime to think, somewhere quiet and away from the hubbub of people's demands, raucous TV programs, and relentless online opinions.
- Talk and do less; think and feel more.
- Learn from suitable mentors. Find people whom you respect and believe emulate the values and ideals that represent a wise way of living life. Look for people doing the things you find interesting and of importance. Ask those people questions and ask them for feedback on your own ideas. Listen with great care to what they have to say, for you will learn much from their experience and reflection. When in doubt, ask your mentors for advice and guidance; while you don't necessarily have to agree with what they have to say, it will certainly give you food for thought.
- Read the writings of philosophers and social commentators who have covered the topic of wisdom. There will be many differing understandings of what it means to be wise and wide-ranging exposure to others' opinions and ideas about wisdom is also helpful "mentoring".
- In your fields of interest (work, home, hobby, sport, pastimes, etc.), read about other people's experiences. While you won't necessarily respond to similar situations in the same way that they did, knowing how others before you have dealt with situations that you're likely to face is an excellent source of foundational knowledge to help your own mind work out how you'd respond and to trigger new ideas and skills from within you.
- Watch happy people and soak up their joy. You don't even need to ask them for advice – simply watching and listening to their joyous interaction with life can teach you a great deal about how to embrace a more joyful outlook.
- Move on from living a life of "shoulds". Listening to other people's "shoulds" is a surefire way to curtail your own sense of self because "shoulds" are a species of other peoples' insecurities being visited on you. If you listen to them too much, they begin to drive your life. Let go of other people's standards of how they think your life "should" be (their own life should be enough of a handful for them). Find your own moral pathway and follow it, and minimize the "shoulds".
- With respect to "should have dones" from the past, let go of them. Hindsight is the means by which you fool yourself into thinking you could have been wiser back then. There is no point reaching back and positioning yourself for a wisdom that did not arise when sought. By all means learn from the experience and be ready to adjust your approach to life's situations as a result, but avoid getting stuck into the place of no return where "should have done" rules your life. This soon leads to "I never get anything right" self-pity and can easily drain you of self-confidence.
- Be unhurried. Be still at least once a day, to allow yourself time to rest and to stop taking in the rush of the world. Being constantly busy, feeling indispensable, or worrying incessantly about being seen as inadequate may make you a paragon of workplace virtue but it does not make you wise. Stop. Listen. Stand still. Take in what the unhurried perspective brings to you.
- Be humble. Is it wise to toot your horn and to sell yourself all the time? The business and marketing world have convinced us it's a necessity, because we've managed to turn ourselves into commodities in need of a good sales pitch, and business language frequently reflects this. However, there is a huge difference between acknowledging to yourself and others that you are good at doing something and exaggerating a range of skill sets beyond your comfort zone just to keep up with the competition. Being humble is not about abdicating your self-worth; rather, it's about being realistic and only emphasizing all that is good and capable within you. In turn, people will know that they can depend on your reliability for those traits. Being humble is wise because it allows the real you to shine through. Humility also ensures that you respect the abilities of others rather than fearing them; the wisdom of accepting your own limitations and connecting with other people's strengths to bolster yours is infinite.
- Be gentle. Gentleness rests at the heart of wisdom. It is a way of life that respects all beings, and also insists on gentleness toward yourself. If you push yourself too hard all the time, you won't find wisdom; instead of embracing your imperfections, you'll always be running from them, which prevents you from discovering inner peace. Being gentle with yourself allows you to gain wisdom through self-respect.
- Question everything including yourself. If you're fond of preaching generalizations to reinforce your set world view, you'll be prone to accepting anything that aligns with your mindset, no matter how poorly constructed an opinion or argument it may be. An inquiring mind probes, and seeks for holes in information. This doesn't mean you have to discard the information or beliefs but you do need to understand when your view of things is shaky or based on tenuous assumptions. When you're questioned and your own opinions are proven untenable, the wise reaction is to keep searching for more solid and reliable explanations and to cease defending the indefensible.
- There is no reason to think your own answers are right. And there is even less reason to think that your current answers will never change throughout your life. As you grow and change, so too do the things you once thought set in concrete. Allow for this growth, and you will gain in wisdom.
- Often the answer lies in the question – take heed of what caused you to ask the question and within that rests the heart of your concern. Use the question to find the answer.
- Avoid following the herd. Being wise requires standing back and assessing whether it's just socially condoned or the latest fad rather than good and useful. If being part of it won't improve your quality of life, why participate? Reflect carefully before leaping.
- Be responsible for yourself. Do what's right for you in life; deep down most of us know what this is and yet we live in a world where it can very easy to avoid self-responsibility and to offload the blame on the government, the school system, our neighbors, the TV, the weather... And the voice of duty also allows us to circumnavigate self-responsibility through unquestioning adoption of the advice of parents, teachers, friends, and anyone else who feels they have the finger on the pulse of who we are instead of figuring out these responsibilities for ourselves. Only you can know who you are and only you can be responsible for your ultimate choices. If you've spent years doing what was right according to someone else's standards rather than your own, you're not being responsible for yourself. Change the job where nobody recognizes your talents and find one where people will discover the tiger within. Move on to a housing situation where you're comfortable, not cowering. And find a way to earn a living that doesn't compromise your compassion, care, and interests. Self-responsibility, including learning to accept the consequences of making your own decisions, increases wisdom.
- Don't suppress your feelings and emotions. To do so is unwise and unhealthy. Emotions have a way of finding an outlet and if you've ignored them under a thin veneer of professionalism or trying to be "strong", the eventual outburst of emotions can be uncontrolled. Being responsible for yourself includes nurturing your healthy emotions and dealing promptly with your negative emotions rather than avoiding them. A wise person embraces feelings and intuition (gut feeling) as part of their whole and learns how to listen with care and discrimination to feelings instead of stifling them.
- Keep life uncomplicated. For many people, a sense of meaning in life is "created" from being overly busy and by complicating everything from work to love. Complexity can make a person feel important and wanted but it is not wisdom. Rather, it's a form of distraction from oneself and from dealing with issues in life that really do matter, like questioning what your purpose is and what life is all about. Complication rules out reflection, leaves you vulnerable to the mysticism of expertise, and can cause you to make things harder than they need to be. Keep it simple and wisdom will flourish.
- Avoid being media addicted. Related to keeping life uncomplicated and not following the herd, detaching yourself regularly from media is a vital part of being wise. Small doses are fine but anything that saturates you and controls your thinking is an abdication of the self and the need to think. When media dominates your day and night and you believe you're best pals with the movie stars, the internet entrepreneurs, and the top 100 bloggers, then it's time to clear the fluff out of your head.
- Linked with keeping your life uncomplicated is the need to keep yourself free from communication overload. Media saturation in your life is not about learning or increasing your knowledge. Unfortunately, much media is repackaged and you already know it but convince yourself it's news. Be selective and read that which enhances your understanding of world affairs rather than simply confirming your existing knowledge. And as already stated, question everything.
- Be there for others. Share your wisdom with others to help guide them. As a mentor and teacher yourself, you can help other people learn about critical thinking, embracing feelings, loving lifelong learning, and trusting themselves. Bear in mind that wisdom is not about the fairytale image of the wise old man stuck in a cave on a mountaintop; keeping apart hermit-like can easily border on contempt and dislike for your fellow humans. Avoid the elitist temptation to use learning as a barrier against others; knowledge is for sharing not hoarding, and wisdom will only grow when exposed to everyone else's ideas no matter how confronting they may be. And beware navel-gazing; reflection time is important but so is time spent giving back to people the knowledge, skills, and love that you have gained.
- When you ask others, learn to give credit, and receive it when due.
- Often, take the time to relax and take a look at the world around you.
- If you use logic to make decisions, consider this: When you have too much doubt in your reasoning, it will be hard to make those decisions.
- Some decisions you will doubt, because your decisions are only as valid as your reasoning, which - at times - you may think is not at all valid. But without decisions, you may not attain the things you want. No article can advise on how to balance these needs, that is up to you.
- How to Make a Three Wise Men Shot
- How to Be Smart
- How to Stay Smart
- How to Ask a Question Intelligently
- How to Cultivate Compassion in Your Life
- How to Be a Gentle Person
- How to Reflect on Your Life
Sources and Citations
- ↑ Mary Jaksch, How to live life to the max with beginner's mind, http://zenhabits.net/how-to-live-life-to-the-max-with-beginners-mind/
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