Life can seem so demanding and frantic – so much to do, so many plates to keep spinning and fronts to hold down. Standards to live up to and accomplishments to chase, in the hope of reaching happiness. It can be exhausting.
That’s why I was thrilled – and relieved – recently to read a book called The Art of Thinking Clearly, by an entrepreneur named Rolf Dobelli. By the title, it sounds like a book about logic or psychology, and in essence it is – but what it’s really about is cutting down on the hyperactivity of modern life, by realizing that much of what we do, and most of our frustrations, stem from simply not thinking clearly.
You know the feeling you get sometimes when you’re in the middle of doing something difficult or tedious, and suddenly you realize you don’t even need to do it – you could just stop?
That’s the feeling I got over and over, reading this book.
Dobelli wrote it because he had spent years paying attention to his own thinking, especially his errors. His motivation at first was to stop making mistakes with his money. But over time he began to realize that the thinking errors that could lead to poor financial decisions also affected his personal and professional life.
The insights he gained changed his life so markedly, he decided to write about them.
My favorite is what Dobelli calls the “illusion of control.” It’s a tendency for people to believe they control more than they really do – and therefore they take a lot of actions that have no effect at all.
There’s a joke about this: Every day, a man stands on a certain street corner and waves his hat wildly. A policeman asks him what he thinks he’s doing. The man says, “I’m keeping the giraffes away.” The cop tells him, “But there are no giraffes around here.” The man smiles and says, “Well, I must be doing a good job!”
It’s great to be reminded there’s so much we could simply stop doing, or worrying about, because all our effort just doesn’t matter anyway. (Often, for me, these unnecessary and exhausting activities involve trying to influence or “help” other people – who probably don’t even need or want it.)
Dobelli advises, “Focus on the few things of importance that you can really influence. For everything else, Que sera, sera.”
Then there’s the “inability to close doors.” This refers to the common tendency to want to keep all options open, keep as many irons in the fire as possible, keep all possibilities in play. Dobelli gives the example of a person who’s reading a pile of books all at the same time, or a man who dates three women at the same time and can’t choose one.
Dobelli points out that people don’t realize the high costs involved in keeping options in play – the time and mental energy it requires, and the loss of the opportunity to make real accomplishments or, in the case of the three-woman man, live a full life.
Dobelli says, “We must learn to close doors.”
He advises writing down a list of things you decide not to pursue in life. Then, whenever you’re considering taking on a new goal or activity, make sure it’s not one you’ve already decided not to spend your time on.
“Most doors are not worth entering,” he writes, “even when the handle seems to turn so effortlessly.”
Maybe the most powerful error to eliminate is the “hedonic treadmill.” Humans have a hard time accurately predicting how they will feel in the future. In particular, they overestimate how happy an accomplishment or a purchase will make them, and for how long.
As a result, they constantly keep chasing happiness – via career progress, financial goals, material acquisitions, and so forth – and never reach it, because the effects of those things don’t last.
People are like hamsters on a treadmill, constantly chasing happiness and never getting anywhere, but thinking the next achievement or purchase will do the trick. It rarely does.
Dobelli recommends a more science-based approach to seeking happiness. Know that material things and professional accomplishments will give you only short-term satisfaction – that’s what the research shows.
Instead, he says, focus on maximizing your free time and autonomy. Use that free time and autonomy to build friendships and to follow your passions – things that really do lead to satisfaction.
So much of our unhappiness is actually self-induced, Dobelli points out. This is cause to rejoice, because it means it’s within our power, for every one of us, to feel more peace, focus, calm, and joy. It’s just a clearer thought away.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.