Rumination is for cows: #18 of 55 things I have learned

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Albert Bandura, arguably the greatest living psychologist. To almost anyone who ever took an undergraduate psychology course, he is best remembered for his Bobo doll study, where he found that young children who observed aggressive behavior being reinforced (on a doll), were more likely to be aggressive themselves – that is, modeling and vicarious reinforcement contributed to aggression.

This talk wasn’t about that. It was about happiness.

Cow_female_black_whiteDr. Bandura was talking about one of his studies on happiness and I remember him saying that one of the strongest predictors of happiness in the subjects in his study was, “an absence of self-ruminative thoughts.”

I’ve always thought rumination was slightly disgusting. It’s what cows and other ruminants do, defined as “to chew again what has been slightly chewed and swallowed”. Turns out, not only is the physical kind of rumination a bit yucky but the mental kind is particularly bad for you.

We all do it sometimes – wonder what that cute guy in physics class thinks of me, did he notice I wore a particularly nice outfit today or that I got the answer right to that especially difficult question the professor asked, does he think maybe I’m too pushy calling out the answers in class, maybe that answer really wasn’t perfect even though the professor said it was correct. Maybe there was a more complete answer and I left out part of it. Would it have been better if I mentioned how it related to the section we just read on forces? And on and on.

I’m pretty happy most of the time and I attribute a lot of it to having missed home economics class on the day they brought all of the girls together and told them that they needed to evaluate themselves constantly and in parts. I have never, ever understood the women and girls I meet who say, “I think my nose is ugly. My butt is just too big. I’d be so much happier if I could just lose a few pounds. My hair looks awful like this.”  And on and on.

Here is what I think when I get up in the morning and look in the mirror.

I look fine.

Then I brush my teeth and my hair and go on with my day. The world of full of people both prettier and uglier than me. I’m over it.

What Bandura said is that the happiest people were focused outward. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said something very similar, that we are happiest when we are absorbed in an activity. When I am happiest is when I’m working – designing a program, reading research, writing code. When I was young, what made me happiest was when I was doing judo, running track, or yes, writing code which we called programming back then because we weren’t cool enough to call ourselves software developers.

I went to a start-up event a couple of weeks ago, and the very best comment I heard from any of the speakers was this,

“Quit telling  yourself that everyone knows more than you. First of all, they don’t and secondly it doesn’t matter. If you keep working at whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll get better.”

Quit thinking about you and start thinking about the task at hand. It’s probably the secret to success and it’s definitely the secret to happiness.

And that’s #18 of 55 things that I’ve learned in (almost) 55 years.

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  1. Note to self: Stop ruminating. Wonderful advice. I am always happiest when planting in the garden or making a meal in the kitchen. Involved in what you are doing instead of being too involved with yourself certainly can make a difference on your outlook. Thanks for the reminder and I look forward to more words of wisdom.

  2. Super Wow!!!! Insightful, well written, and empowering. “A” grade blog post! I’m well over my forties (47 to be exact), today I totally agree with you. Yesterday, (meaning twenty year ago) a lost time, energy and so much more being the girl who thought to much about what people thought about her. I’ve tried to educate my daughter in a way that she’s not losing precious time of her life! Thumbs up!

  3. Full disclosure to people other than Ann. I’m her sister. Ann, you never cease to amaze me with your wisdom. I’ve always known that you, not 42, were the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything! Your blog postings support this. (I wouldn’t dare say “prove” to a statistician!)

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