Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center listed the economy, health care, education, terrorism and Social Security as Americans’ top five priorities. In a recent online survey, people said their most important personal issues were: Improving their money situation, improving their relationships with others, being happy, increasing self-esteem and confidence, and improving their job situation. I’ve wondered how much do people actually think about these things.
Noble prize winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman believes that people experience their lives through a series of three-second chunks of time that they perceived as being in the present. Everything else is either in the past or in the future. Kahneman calls these three-second windows of time the “psychological present.” Taking sleep into account, people have approximately 20,000 of these intervals available each day to fill with their thoughts.
Most thoughts are fleeting and not particularly important. Many barely leave an impression. Thinking is an automatic process and most people experience it as an inner narration. People typically think in words, although some people, especially artists and engineers, may also use visual imagery. Psychologists have a lot of ways to describe thoughts — racing, pressured, tangential, intrusive and overinclusive. They also talk about having “poverty of thought” or in contrast “a flight of ideas.”
It’s been estimated that about 95 percent of our thoughts are repetitive and about 80 percent are negative. This is probably because there is continuity in our thinking. Many of the issues, hopes, fears and needs we have today will be repeated tomorrow. Also having a genuine new thought probably isn’t all that common. It would require rather unique experiences.
Since thinking is basically self-talk, our conversations can provide some hints about what’s on our minds. Psychologist Adrian Ward from University of Colorado says, “If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation. People spend about 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves.” On social media this figure increases to 80 percent.
I was surprised that so many of our thoughts are negative. Raj Raghunathan from the University of Texas conducted a study on business students and found that approximately 70 percent of the average students’ spontaneously occurring thoughts were negative. Before the study was conducted, however, these students predicted that 60-75 percent of their thoughts would be positive. This discrepancy suggests that people may be motivated to deny the extent of the negativity of their thoughts, as a kind of psychological defense.
Raghunathan calls spontaneous negative thoughts “negative mental chatter.” He classifies it into three main types: 1. Inferiority thought; 2. Thoughts related to love and approval; and 3. Control thoughts. Such negativity may be an evolutionary attempt to focus our attention toward resolving potential problems so that survival needs are met.
Repetitive negative thoughts occasionally get out of hand and are key features in depressive, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. If a problem-solving focus is lacking, such thoughts are not adaptive and don’t assist in gaining insight into problems. Meditation, mindfulness, relaxation, cognitive restructuring and visualization exercises all have been used to reduce this negative chatter
In a 2015 survey by Go-Bank, most of people’s thoughts (34 percent) fell into a nonspecific content category. Money was the topic of most common specific thought held and accounted for 18 percent of total thoughts, work was at 17 percent, followed by health at 11 percent, love life at 9 percent, vacationing at 6 percent, and politics at 5 percent. Of course, when we think about these topics, we typically are thinking about how they affect us personally.
People ages 45-64 tended to think more about work than money. Young millennials were the only group that thought about their love lives more than money or work. There was no gender difference when it came to thinking about money. Women, however, were more likely to think about their health, love lives and vacations than men. Men were more likely to think about politics and work.
As might be expected, older Americans thought most about health issues. Baby boomers thought about it twice as much as millennials. Income was also a determining factor, as low-income workers thought the most about money. People with the highest incomes were the ones most likely to think about vacationing.
Respondents 65 years and older were more likely to think about politics than any other age group. Unsurprisingly, the median age of the typical Fox News and MSNBC viewer is 65, according to Nielsen surveys.
Of course, what is on our minds is strongly influenced by current events, especially those things in the news and on social media. Over the past few weeks, for example, a lot of people have been thinking and talking about the final episodes of television series such as The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones, even if they have never watched the shows.
Americans tend to buy the same products, eat at the same restaurants, work in similar jobs, and watch, or at least talk about, the same television shows. Since they share so many of these experiences, it’s not surprising they have the same thoughts.
All things being equal, our immediate thoughts are generally directed toward the activities in which we are currently engaged. For most Americans, this means work or watching television. When we are not directly occupied, we tend to think about the things that need to be done and meeting basic needs, such as food, sleep, sex and money. Much of our thinking involves continually planning, in which we mentally run through various strategies in order to make decisions about how best to accomplish our goals.
In the time it took to read this column, most people have had time for at least 160 different thoughts. I hope that 80 percent of them weren’t negative.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at email@example.com.