For the past month, since we became a single (read: tiny) income family building a new business, newly married, and watching all our money fly away, I’ve received the same message almost every single day: change your thoughts, change your life. It’s come in the form of other blogs, newsletters, podcasts, random Facebook posts, prayer group, tv shows, movies, random people in the grocery store…the message has been persistent. And consistent…ly annoying the shit out of me.
I’m woo-woo. I’m a spiritual-thinker. Unless, of course, it’s me that is going through a poop-storm. Then, most of my woo-woo goes bye-bye and I get depressed and terrified. This experience has been no different, interspersed with plenty of joy and laughter and encouraging moments. But the woo-woo hasn’t really served me well lately, hence I’ve ignored the obvious sign that it’s fairly important for me to change my thinking.
Then today…science. Science gave me the message again, only this time, in a SCIENCY way. And I heard it differently.
Remember the Marshmallow Test? Created by psychologist Walter Mischel, a few marshmallows were set on a table in front of a young person (maybe 4 or 5 years) in an empty room. The children were told if they waited to eat the marshmallows until the adult came back into the room, they’d get EXTRA marshmallows. The study was repeated hundreds of times, all in an effort to correlate the delay of gratification with success: if you can control yourself, you’ll be successful in life. The kids that waited would go to college, the ones that gobbled up the marshmallows would not.
But ironically, this was not at all what Mr. Mischel expected people to take from the study. Because the study itself is rarely explained in its entirety…
No, Mr. Mischel had another set of children in the experiment. This set of kids were the entire POINT of his studies, but were usually left out of the anecdotal evidence. These children were also sat in a room, with a table, and lots of marshmallows. They were also told to wait until the adult came back into the room before eating the marshmallows. BUT. Before the adult left, he or she would make a suggestion, such as, “You can just pretend the marshmallows aren’t there until I get back. You can pretend they’re just a picture.”
Guess what? Not only did the number of children who delay gratification increase, the length of time they COULD delay gratification tripled, from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.
Because Mr. Mischel changed the way the children could choose to interpret the situation. There was an option besides, “This sucks and I’m going to have to white-knuckle this ish.” He taught them to re-frame it. Those aren’t marshmallows. Those are just pictures of marshmallows. “It showed the many ways people can change what they become and what they think. They aren’t defined by their own biographies…” Mr. Mischel explained. We humans are actually very flexible because we have these awesome things called brains that allows us to CHOOSE the thoughts we have (with the exception of mental illness).
But that’s not the moral that our culture drew. Our culture, and then the media for decades, defined it as, “The destiny of your future is in a marshmallow.” Your future is based on the cards you are dealt, the bad things that happen to you, how lucky you happen to get…
When in reality, Mr. Mischel wants us to get that our future is based on what we choose to think.
Which brings me back to the woo-woo…
The self-control Mr. Mischel was testing was not whether or not you could control your actions, but whether or not you could control your thoughts…
I have to change my thoughts. I am the only one in control of that. I am the only one with control of the things my brain thinks. And for being such a control freak, I’m totally dropping the ball when it comes to controlling my own thinks.
New goal: think 5 good things a day and reverse any negative/scary/anxiety-ridden thoughts into good ones, even if I don’t even believe myself. I’ve tried a bunch of other ways to control this situation, and none of them have worked…
“It’s not simply that life does things to us…we in turn do things to it.”
Time to try doing things to life.