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Mental Traps

The Overthinker's Guide to a Happier Life

by Andre Kukla

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happiness, applied psychology, mental health
list price: $21.00
category: Psychology
published: 2007
publisher: Doubleday Canada
imprint: Anchor Canada
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Mental Traps is André Kukla’s immensely enjoyable and down-to-earth catalogue of the everyday blunders we make in our thinking habits, how these traps can affect our entire lives, and what we can do about it.

Ever find yourself putting off even relatively minor tasks because of the many other little jobs that you’d have to tackle first? Or spending far too much time worrying about things you can’t change? Or living for the future, not for today? Truth is, we all do — and we all recognize that sometimes our ways of thinking just aren’t productive. When it comes to our daily lives, we often laugh off habits like procrastination as being human nature and just resolve to approach things differently next time. Or, when the issues facing us are enormous or traumatic, we might recognize that we’re dwelling on our problems, or otherwise spending our time on fruitless thinking, but have no idea how to get out of that miserable rut. Either way, it takes up a lot of our mental energy.

But as André Kukla makes clear in Mental Traps, what we don’t recognize — or at least admit to ourselves! — is how thinking unproductively about even the smallest elements of everyday life can mount up and keep us from being happy, from living life to the fullest. For what appear to be minor lapses are actually “habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, waste enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy without accomplishing anything of value for us or anyone else.” So whether we’re dealing with how to attain our major career goals or deciding when to serve the salad course at dinnertime, the end results can be much the same: readily identifiable patterns of wasteful thinking. These, in Kukla’s view, are the mental traps.

In his introduction, Kukla compares his method to that of naturalist’s guides, which take a very matter-of-fact approach to providing practical information. He then outlines eleven common mental traps, such as persistence, fixation, acceleration, procrastination and regulation. Devoting a chapter to each, he provides simple examples to help us to identify mental traps in our own thinking — and to recognize why it would be beneficial to change our ways. Our anxiety, our dissatisfaction, our disappointment — these are often the consequences of thinking about the world the wrong way. And it’s in the parallels he draws between the major and minor events of our lives that he truly brings his point home: How is refusing to eat olives like toiling at a job that has long ago lost all satisfaction? How is arriving at the airport too early a symptom of a life never fully lived? Again, what can seem to be a very inconsequential habit can actually signal bigger, more detrimental problems in our ways of thinking.

Kukla’s goal — one that we should share, in the end — is to help us realize how much more enjoyable our lives would be if we were a little more attentive to our thought processes. Just as Buddhism, from which the author has drawn many of his ideas, teaches that we should perform all of our acts mindfully, Kukla suggests that we make a conscious effort to step back, clear our minds, and simply observe how our thoughts develop. By doing so, we will begin to recognize unproductive patterns in our own thinking, and then we can try to avoid them. Ultimately, Kukla hopes that Mental Traps will help readers move towards what he calls a “liberated consciousness” — a state in which we no longer allow mental traps to inhibit our experiences. From having more energy to being able to act impulsively, we’d realize the benefits of living in the moment and feel truly free.

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Mental traps are ­habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, take up enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy, without accomplishing anything of value for us or for anyone else in return.

The word “value” here, and throughout this book, refers to whatever seems worthwhile to us. This book is not a moral tract. It doesn’t take the side of useful work against recreation, or social involvement against self-indulgence. If we’re content to watch television all day, then this activity will not be counted here as a waste of time. Watch­ing television has value for us.

The fact remains that we often exhaust ourselves in troublesome pursuits that don’t in any way further the actualization of our very own values, whatever they may happen to be. These useless pursuits are the mental traps. Mental traps keep us from enjoying television as readily as they keep us from serious work. They are absolute wastes of time.

Mental traps are identified not by the content of our ideas but by their form. Any aspect of daily life – household chores, weekend recreation, careers, relationships – may be thought about either productively or unproductively. We fall into the same traps when we wash the dishes as when we contemplate marriage or divorce. It’s not the subject of our thinking, but how we deal with the subject, that makes the difference. When we rid ourselves of any one trap, we find that our problems in every department of life are simultaneously eased.

We build unproductive structures of thought on every conceivable timescale. One and the same mental trap may hold us in its sway for a fleeting moment or for a lifetime. And the momentary traps are just as pernicious as the life­long traps. Because of their brevity, the mere moments of wasted time and energy are especially difficult to grasp and correct. They’re over and done with before we’re aware of what we’re doing. The result is that they’re fallen into with monumental ­frequency. It’s doubtful that the average twenty-first-century urban adult is altogether free of them for more than a few minutes at a time. By the end of the day, the cumulative effect of these brief episodes may be an entirely unaccountable exhaustion.

The basic idea underlying mental traps was concisely expressed a few thousand years ago:

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven.

When we deviate from this profound advice – when we begin at the wrong time, proceed at the wrong pace, quit too soon or too late – we fall short of what we might otherwise accomplish.

Again, there’s no attempt here to prescribe the content of our activities. To everything there is a season. Both the enjoyment of good food and the scramble up the ladder of success may be legitimate parts of our life. But if we try to advance our career while we’re eating dinner, we ruin our digestion–and we can’t really do good work as we pass the salt and slurp the soup. Neither of our values is well­ served. Given the same values, we could make far better use of our time and resources.

Our lapses from doing the best thing at the best time and in the best way fall into recurrent and readily identi­fiable patterns. These are the mental traps.

If mental traps are injurious to us, why do we fall into them? Why don’t we simply quit? There are three reasons. First, we’re often unaware of what we’re thinking. Second, even when we are aware of our thoughts, we often don’t recognize their injurious nature. Third, even when we recognize their injurious nature, we often can’t quit because of the force of habit.

If the thinking that goes on when we’re trapped remains below the level of consciousness, we can’t even begin to change it. We can’t choose to stop doing what we’re not aware of doing in the first place. If we didn’t know that we wore clothes, it would never occur to us to take them off, even if we felt too hot. By the same token, when we don’t know that we’re thinking unproductive thoughts, the option of stopping ­doesn’t present itself.

The idea that we can be unaware of our own thoughts may strike us as paradoxical, for we tend to equate consciousness with thinking itself. But the two are by no means identical processes. We may be exquisitely conscious of the taste of an exotic fruit or the feel of an orgasm without having a thought in our head. And we may be filled to overflowing with an unbroken stream of ideas without noticing a single one. The following mental experiment will convince us of this important point.

When we aren’t occupied with any definite business or pleasure, our thoughts often wander from one topic to another on the basis of the flimsiest associations. This experiment can be conducted only when we happen to catch ourselves in the midst of such wanderings. For those who don’t fall asleep quickly, the time spent lying awake in bed is espec­ially rich in this material. As soon as we catch ourselves wandering, we can begin a backward reconstruction of the sequence of ideas that led us to where we are. If we were thinking about the beauty of Paris, we may recall that this was preceded by a thought about a friend who has just returned from there. The idea of the friend’s return may have come from the recollection that this person owes us money, which may in turn have come from ruminations about our financial difficulties, which may have been elicited by the idea that we would like to buy a new car.

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Contributor notes

André Kukla is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, in both the Departments of Psychology and of Philosophy. He has published numerous philosophical and psychological articles and books, including books by the Oxford and MIT Presses. Mental Traps is his first foray into writing for the general public.

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Editorial Review

“I always suspected I had few bad habits of mind. Thanks to André Kukla, I am now certain I have many. If that makes reading Mental Traps sound like a dispiriting experience, it shouldn’t. Kukla has a light touch with weighty ideas. Readers will be enlightened and entertained, as well as improved.”
— Jamie Whyte, author of  Crimes Against Logic
“While it may be unlikely that any single person will have fallen into all mental traps so cunningly described by André Kukla in this exhilarating book, it is absolutely certain that every person will have fallen into some of them. That’s why it will ring loud bells and switch on bright lights in the minds of all who read it. Which means, of course, that everyone ought to.”
— Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh, author of Godless Morality
“Ever looked TWICE for your lost keys in an EMPTY bowl? Returned more than once to check you’d locked the door? Ever spoiled a moment by niggling with your partner over trivia? Ever been unable to get yourself to do something you really know you should? EVER LOST OUT because you couldn’t decide between two great lovers, or two great investments? OF COURSE YOU HAVE! André Kukla shows us how to think about these Mental Traps. If you want out of the big sandtraps and onto the green, read his book. KUKLA IS RIGHT! We could all be bopping along much more comfortably towards our goals. His nice, clear, straightforward examples steer us past the trap horizons. He helps us out of dark mental ditches into which we have fallen. His stories give us insights we need to talk about to those who know us INTIMATELY — or over the watercooler, in the coffeehouse, or at our bookclub.”
— John M. Kennedy, FRSC

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