Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Doing Less for Mental Health

The holiday season brings with it excitement, merriment, and joy. Gatherings with friends and family provide time together and a sense of connection. But this time of year can also deliver a hefty dose of stress as a result of jam-packed schedules, last-minute holiday shopping, late-night parties, delayed flights, and just too much busyness.

We all know what stresses us out during the holidays. As a friend of mine likes to say, this is not our first rodeo. So, what makes taking care of our mental health at this time of year so difficult? Some interesting research recently published in Nature may shed light on a piece of the puzzle.

1. We favor adding over subtracting. When it comes to problem-solving, we humans demonstrate a strong bias towards additive solutions. We are inclined to believe that less is not more and that subtractive solutions are less likely to be appreciated. We anticipate that we will receive less credit for subtracting something than for adding. This bias exists when both strategies work, and even when the subtractive solution is more effective! We have a tendency to continue an endeavor once we have devoted money, effort, or time to something. We are prone to protecting “sunk costs.” We tend to stay a certain course because we don’t want to “waste” past investments. Maybe it’s time for a re-think.

2. We are prone to linear thinking. When it comes to the holidays, much of what causes us stress is not any single activity, but rather their cumulative impact. We enjoy sharing time with loved ones. We savor special meals. A new pair of gloves can bring joy to the giver and recipient alike. There’s nothing wrong with any one thing, but it’s like putting too many eggs in the cake batter. We know that if a recipe calls for two eggs, six is not better. But in much of our lives, we are prone to thinking that if some is good, more is better. This kind of linear thinking fails to anticipate that tipping point where what we get in return is less of what we want. Heaping it on means heaping on the stress.

3. We fail to consider subtractive solutions. In a series of eight experiments, University of Virginia Professor Gabrielle Adams and colleagues showed that when we approach problems, we are inclined to systematically overlook subtractive transformations in favor of additive ones. They found that the primary reason many participants offered minimal subtractive solutions wasn’t that they didn’t see the value in those solutions but that they didn’t even consider them. Various experimental conditions demonstrated that this is especially true when we are not cued to consider subtractive solutions because we’re so out of practice in this way of thinking. When we have only one opportunity (one holiday party) versus many (dinner invitations all year long), and when we are under high levels of pressure (too busy to consider our options) we just keep adding to our calendars – and adding to our stress.

4. It becomes a habit. When we seek to improve, solve, or advance things, we search for possible options. Instead of trying to search through all possible ideas or solutions – which would be cognitively overtaxing – we tend to work from a familiar menu of options based on past experience. Thus, the tendency to pursue additive solutions begets more additive solutions. It makes them familiar, puts them at the top of our personalized menu of options – making them more cognitively accessible and, therefore, more likely to be considered.

5. Outsmarting the additive bias. If we find ourselves stressed this holiday season, it may be helpful to consider that maybe we have fallen prey to this additive heuristic mindset. Simply knowing that our brains are biased to add rather than subtract when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving can be useful. Being intentional about what we add to our calendars so we avoid reaching that tipping point where additive strategies deliver more stress than joy can help. Perhaps requiring that we balance adding something to the calendar with removing something will help. And perhaps in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, if we recognize the additive bias of our brains, maybe we can outsmart ourselves by adding blocks of “free time” to our calendars.

Addition. Subtraction. Thinking differently. Doing less. More Joy. Less stress. I hope these ideas contribute to an equation that helps each of us take good care of our mental health this holiday season.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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