I’ve discovered an almost uncannily effective strategy to keep myself from going into downward spirals of resentment, blame, and self-accusation—when, for instance, I find myself brooding over thoughts like, “I’m not getting enough work done” or “My daughters don’t get along very well.”
When I realize I’m having thoughts like this (and I’ll admit, just realizing that I’m having this kind of thought is a challenge in itself), I “make the positive argument.”
As a consequence of a psychological phenomenon that might be called “argumentative reasoning,” we’re very skillful at arguing a particular case. When we take a position, we look for evidence to support it, and we find reasons that prove our point, and then we stop, satisfied. This mental process gives us the illusion that our position is objective and well justified.
However—and this is the useful point—if we try to argue the very opposite position, we can often make that case just as easily. If I tell myself, “I’m a shy person,” I marshal examples of my shyness; if I tell myself, “I’m an outgoing person,” I remember times when I was outgoing. I’m able to argue both conclusions quite persuasively.
To make use of this phenomenon, I resolved to “Make the positive argument” to challenge my critical thoughts about myself or other people. (It’s nice to have a way to turn my natural belligerence to good purpose.)
“Make the positive argument” also helps me combat my decided habit of unconscious overclaiming (what a great two-word phrase, I should add it to my list!). In “unconscious overclaiming,” we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people. Studies showed that when wives and husbands estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent.
Now, when I start muttering, “My husband doesn’t help us get organized for trips,” I argue to myself, “Actually, he does help us get organized for trips.” And I realize, he does.
Try it yourself! Did it work?
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.