in Life Optimization

A Healthy Thought Glossary

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‘ Picture from Laura Billings on flickr

You are what you eat. Our bodies are physically made up of the food we put in, sure, and you get out what you put in. The importance of eating healthy is nothing new.  But what about thinking healthy? ‘You are what you think’ is just as apt, perhaps even more so. What are we if not the contents of our minds?

Thus comes the information diet, a recent concept that admonishes us to monitor our daily intake of information with the same care as we do our food. Avoid junkfood like Buzzfeed (or indulge in moderation), and maintain a healthy level of thought provoking content, whether that’s industry news, a controversial book, or educational courses.

You are what you think

So we’ve gone from monitoring the type of food we eat, to the type of content we consume. Now I’m taking it further and say we should monitor the very thoughts we have. Curate the mind itself with the same scrupulousness as the stuff we put into it.

This should be easier, since your thoughts are the one thing in life that you can control unconditionally.  Changing things here is altering the very source of data, instead of an input. Not to mention that your thoughts are shaped by your daily information diet, and limited in scope by your food diet. Shaping thoughts is the end goal – shaping your diet affects your health, shaping your information affects your knowledge, but shaping your thoughts affects you. What are we if not the sum of our thoughts?

This is hard to do. Merely thinking about shaping a thought is a thought in and of itself. You may have come across a popular activity called simply ‘The Game‘, where you are always playing and if you think of ‘the game’, then you lose it. Silly, huh? That’s beause the moment you try not to think of something, you think of it. One might be tempted to say it’s futile to separate ‘good thoughts’ from ‘bad thoughts’, since merely thinking about bad thoughts would be enough to introduce them into your mind.

But I’m not trying to dictate our thoughts – for now, let’s just identify them, and worry about what’s healthy later. I can’t read anyone else’s mind, but given my own thoughts and conversations with others, here’s six potential types of thoughts.

Types of Thoughts:

Creative:

These thoughts relate to things that don’t exist, but might if you work on them. Daydreams, fantasies, and the majority of your creative imagination fall into this category. You can come up with them on purpose while sketching out an idea in your head, or by accident while absentmindedly wondering what ‘X’ would look like. What’s distinguishing about these thoughts is that their contents don’t reflect reality or any particular concrete task.  This is why the work of artists and visionaries is so impressive – it’s brand new.

Task-Oriented:

In contrast to creative thoughts, task-oriented ones are simple enough – they’re mental reminders to do something. From remembering to buy milk to telling yourself exactly how you’re going to get to work tomorrow, these thoughts lay the groundwork for an action that you will carry out yourself sometime in the future. Anybody who has ever thought about doing something has had these.

Reasoning:

The process of reasoning is similar to task-oriented thoughts because they entail steps, but instead of dealing with actions, they deal with conclusions, hypotheses, and the like. They’re the thoughts that commonly occupy the heads of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Sometimes it may stray into a concrete task, but most of the time they’re walking through arguments, theories, and experiments in their heads, making sure they’re empirically sound and logical.

Memories:

Memories are the act of remembering something that has already happened, and reliving it in your head. They could be fond recollections or tortured reenactments, but their distinguishing factor is that you’ve already experienced them in real life at some point. Where Creative deals with the future and Task-oriented deals with the present, Memories deal with the past.

Worries:

Worries merit distinction from task-oriented and creative because they deal with things that you could do, but usually don’t. It’s all what-if’s and maybe-I-should’s, but as soon as you actually decide to do something, that’s no longer a worry. That’s why they’re such poisonous thoughts – instead of happy memories or idle creative fantasies, they’re negative thoughts that don’t translate to any action. There’s no good reason to harbor worries in your mind – better to convert it to a task to deal with or forget it altogether.

Meta-thoughts:

Meta-thoughts are thoughts about thoughts. Meditation, self-talk, wondering what someone else is thinking of, and what we’re doing right now are all meta-thoughts. Whether you’re making yourself not think at all, staying on one particular thought, or trying to get yourself into an advantageous mental state, you’re going to be thinking about thoughts.

Conclusions:

So we have creative, task-oriented, reasoning, memories, worries, and meta-thoughts. Examine your mind – which thoughts do you find occupying your mind the most and the least? What kind of thoughts do you want occupying your mind? Just as with a healthy diet of food or information, there are certainly healthy and unhealthy thought compositions. Worries are never helpful unless converted into tasks, meta thoughts can help you think more effectively, and you’re probably going to want to spent some time consuming all those hard-won memories at some point.

Beyond that I hesitate to prescribe anything, but I think the mere process of examining your thought composition on a regular basis is a good idea. Food and information diets all start with identifying the inputs, and when the inputs in question are the very contents of your head, it can’t be a bad thing to get to know them better. You can’t really control anything outside of your thoughts, so why not make them as pleasant, effective, or (insert your favorite adjective here) as possible?

Positive psychology prescribes methods to help you think happier, Getting Things Done prescribes methods to help you think more effectively, and whatever mindset you’re trying to shape probably has a corresponding methodology out there to help you get there. One size does not fit all – figure out what you want to think about, and arrange your thoughts accordingly.

What do you think about my proposed thought glossary? Did I miss any categories?