During the studies, however, Pronin realized that rapid thinking isn't always a recipe for elation—as when you're anxious, for example. Conversely, during times of stress, letting the mind slow down—say, through meditation—can make you happier. These insights led to the other piece of what Pronin calls mental motion: variability. "It's not only the speed of your thoughts that matters; it's also whether they're moving like cars on a highway from point A to point B, or just spinning in one place," she says. "And in further experiments, we found that varied thoughts tend to be more uplifting, whereas repetitive thinking tends to be a mood downer."
While other mental health researchers have yet to confirm Pronin's results, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale and author of Women Who Think Too Much, says that repetitive thinking is definitely a hallmark of rumination, "which we have found makes people more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and binge eating." She also agrees that a good strategy for breaking a rumination cycle is meditation (as Pronin says, "opening your mind to whatever thoughts come in").
When you feel stuck in low gear: Princeton psychology professor Emily Pronin suggests jump-starting your brain by doing one of the following:
- Grab the remote and watch an episode of your favorite TV sitcom on fast-forward.
- Pick up an easy Sudoku or crossword puzzle and try to finish it in less than ten minutes.
- Brainstorm by jotting down as many solutions to a problem (like how to pay off a credit card by year's end) as quickly as possible.
- Listen to fast, upbeat music. James Brown or your favorite dance tune is a good bet.