Sophistication in any area of life is no guarantee of happiness or success. But it usually helps:
- Intellectual sophistication doesn’t guarantee academic success, a steady income, or a satisfying career. But it sure helps. Knowing how to study well, for example, makes it a lot easier to get through school with good grades.
- Social sophistication doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage, genuine friendships, or healthy working relationships. But it sure helps. Being able to pick up on subtle social cues, for example, makes it a lot easier to be compassionate and helpful to the people in your life.
In this article, I’d like to make the case that psychological sophistication follows a similar pattern—that people who work to become more psychologically sophisticated improve their odds for both wellbeing and success.
Understanding how your mind works in a more nuanced fashion makes it a lot easier to manage difficult moods and emotions in a healthy, balanced way. And if you can do that, success and happiness often are not far behind.
What follows are 7 habits of psychologically sophisticated people. While we all have inherited strengths and weaknesses, it’s my experience that all of these habits are learnable and improvable with study and practice.
1. They think about their thinking
Psychologically sophisticated people are curious about their own minds and how they work. They routinely think about their thoughts and thinking patterns.
In technical terms, this is called meta-cognition. It means you are aware of the fact that you’re thinking things and able to assess the quality and usefulness of that thinking.
For example, psychologically unsophisticated people often say things like: I just got so worried and I couldn’t stop thinking of all the bad things that might happen. And before I knew it, I was in the middle of a panic attack.
In reality, worry is something you do, not something that happens to you. It’s a habitual pattern of thinking that leads to tremendous anxiety and stress. But without the habit of thinking about your thinking, it feels something that just happens to you.
On the other hand, if you have the habit of thinking about your thinking, you’d notice that worry is actually an activity and something we do. And as a result, it’s something we can, with practice, not do—or at least not do nearly so much of.
When you’re curious about your thoughts, it’s a lot easier to work with them instead of fighting against them.
2. They’re compassionate with themselves when they make mistakes
Psychologically sophisticated people are able to be compassionate with themselves when they fail or make mistakes rather than beating themselves up.
Self-compassion just means that you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
If a good friend, for example, failed an exam or bombed a job interview and was really disappointed, you probably would not say something like:
God, what’s wrong with you? I told you you should have prepared longer. You’re probably just not cut out for this.
If you’re a good friend, you’d probably say something more like this:
I can see you’re really disappointed in yourself. It must be hard, especially since you put so much work into preparing. But I think you’ll bounce back and get it next time.
Obviously, this is just a better way to treat people. So why not treat yourself like that too?
Finally, know that self-compassion is not some new-age, woo-woo positive self-talk thing. It’s not fundamentally about being nice to yourself. It’s about being honest and realistic.
If you made a mistake and feel bad about it, there’s a very good chance you’ll improve the next time and be fine in the long run. Ignoring that possibility by blasting yourself with judgmental negative self-talk is just as dishonest as puffing yourself up with overly positive nonsense.
When you make mistakes, be compassionate and treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—with honesty and support.
3. They’re skeptical of their thoughts
Psychologically sophisticated people understand that their thoughts are not always to be trusted.
For one thing, thoughts don’t always mean something. Many thoughts are simply random. But it’s dangerous to over-interpret them and start acting as if they’re always significant. All sorts of weird thoughts pop into mind while we dream, but we don’t make major decisions based on them. It shouldn’t be any different in waking life.
Just because it’s a thought doesn’t mean it’s important.
Another reason to be skeptical of your thoughts is that thoughts can easily become habitual. If you grew up with abusive, violent parents, you might understandably develop a habit of thinking through the worst-case scenario on your way home from school. But once you’re 35 years old and more in control of your life, this habit of immediately thinking the worst might not be either realistic or helpful.
Just because a thought is the first to show up doesn’t mean it’s more legitimate than any other thought.
Of course, often thoughts are important and meaningful. Let’s say you have a thought that you don’t remember closing the garage door after leaving for work. So you turn around, go back home, and realize you did in fact leave the garage door open. In this case, your thought was very helpful.
You can avoid a lot of unhappiness, both for yourself and other people in your life, by cultivating a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts.
If a thought doesn’t match up with reality, there’s nothing wrong with simply disregarding it.
4. They accept their emotions
Psychologically sophisticated people understand that they can’t directly control their emotions.
For example, no modern legal system I’ve ever heard of punishes people for feeling angry. Instead, you only get punished or convicted if you act on your anger and become aggressive in some way. The reason is, you can’t be morally accountable for something you can’t control.
You can’t simply tun down your anger any more than you can turn down your sadness or turn up your happiness. Rather, we can only influence our emotions indirectly, via how we choose to think and behave.
A major implication of all this is that it doesn’t make any sense to try and control your emotions, judge yourself for them, or expect them to be anything other than exactly what they are.
Instead, the most realistic approach to any kind of emotion—including painful ones—is to be validating and accepting of them:
- When you feel anxious, instead of trying not to appear anxious to other people around you, start by reminding yourself that it makes sense that you feel this anxious given the situation and the amount of stress you’ve been under.
- When you feel sad upon remembering a recently deceased loved one, remind yourself that it’s entirely natural and normal to feel sad when we recall people and things we’ve loved and lost. It’s called grief and it’s perfectly normal.
- When you feel angry at your kids for not listening, remind yourself that anger is a normal response to injustice on any scale. So feeling angry makes sense, even if you aspire not to act on it.
Accepting your emotions means being clear-eyed and realistic about the true nature of emotions. They are not good or bad, dangerous or healthy. They simply are.
If you struggle frequently with difficult emotions, begin by acknowledging that your emotions aren’t good or bad and that you can’t control them directly. If you do this first, you’ll find it far easier to move on from difficult emotions in a way that’s productive and healthy.
5. They take responsibility for their actions
Psychologically sophisticated people take responsibility for the things that really are under their control—their actions.
Importantly, taking responsibility is not a mere intellectual exercise. Most people understand on a conceptual level that they are responsible for their actions. What differentiates psychologically sophisticated people is that they know that mere understanding isn’t enough. They know that they must remind themselves of it regularly and practice the skill of taking responsibility.
For example, many people struggle with lateness. They’re chronically showing up late to events, submitting work late, and generally just being sluggish about the things they’ve committed to. Now, most of these people would acknowledge that they should take responsibility for being on time. But they don’t actually do anything differently.
On the other hand, a person with more psychological sophistication would acknowledge that they need to create a plan to incentivize themself do be on time. If they’re showing up late for work, they might set a recurring alarm in their phone, or prep for their day the evening before, or commit to carpooling so they were forced to be onetime through social accountability.
In other words, psychologically sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change. They know that to be truly responsible for our actions, we need to take practical steps to facilitate them.
Instead of relying on willpower, luck, or good intentions, they take responsibility not just for the outcome they wish to achieve, but to building the process they need to get there.
6. They know the difference between desires and values
Psychologically sophisticated people are crystal clear about the difference between short-term whims and desires and long-term values and goals.
In many ways, the fundamental struggle we all face is that we have Stone Age brains in a modern world. For example, our brains crave simple sugars and carbs. And while these would have been rare and valuable in hunter-gather days, they lead us to overeating, obesity, and all the health problems the stem from an abundance of widely available, inexpensive, and wonderfully tasty treats in modern life.
Our desire pulls us one way and our values pull another. And more often than not, our desires win.
Of course, it is possible to resist the pull of unhelpful short term desires like craving unhealthy food, risky sexual impulses, or gambling. But a basic prerequisite is that we stay mindful of the cost of indulging these desires:
- Sure, more sugar tastes good, but Type II Diabetes makes life a real struggle.
- Sex is fun. STDs… not so much.
- Gambling is exciting until you turn out of money and can’t pay your mortgage.
The real problem is not that we have short-term desires, it’s that we forget about our long-term values.
Which means the trick to navigating life in a way that leads to genuine happiness and success comes down to keeping our values and highest aspirations front and center:
- It’s easier to resist that second bowl of ice-cream when you imagine how important it is that you have enough energy to wrestle and play tag with your kids.
- It’s easier to say no to a risky sexual encounter when you remind yourself of the type of love and connection you really crave.
- It’s easier to save your money and invest it wisely instead of blowing it on cheap thrills when you’re regularly reminding yourself of that lake house you’re going to buy and enjoy in 10 years.
Of course, getting clear about your values and reminding yourself of them doesn’t make resisting unhelpful desirers easy. It’s always a struggle, often with many complicating factors.
But if you’re going to have a fighting chance, you need the positive force of your highest values and aspirations to help you stay the course.
Make time to regularly consider and remind yourself of what’s most important to you and you’re far less likely to get distracted by things that aren’t.
7. They ask for help when they need it
Psychologically sophisticated people are humble enough to accept that they don’t know it all and can’t control everything.
Notice that I didn’t say they’re humble enough to understand that they don’t know it all and can’t control everything. Of course, we all understand intellectually that we’re not omniscient and omnipotent. The problem is, it feels good to believe—even briefly—that we have more certainty and control than we really do, especially in the face of difficult challenges.
For example, suppose your 19-year-old child is worrying you with their drug use. Conceptually, you understand that there isn’t a lot you can do directly to change him. You’ve tried talking, pleading, begging even for him to stop, but he continues. In fact, you’ve tried everything you know to do and you’re at your wit’s end.
Now, you may know intellectually that there really isn’t anything else you can do alone. And that maybe it’s time to get some help—just for yourself if nothing else. Maybe seeing a counselor or therapist to help you cope with this tough situation. Trouble is, doing so would mean really facing up to and acknowledging that you’re largely helpless in this situation. Your son is an adult and responsible for his own life.
But the more you worry about what might happen to him, the more afraid you get (and perhaps guilty you feel for perceived mistakes you made in the past with him). And so you try, yet again, to convince him to change because, ever so briefly, this gives you hope and a sense of control that you can make the right thing happen.
In one way or another, we all have areas of our lives where the emotionally mature thing to do is own up to our lack of control and seek help. But this requires the humility and courage to tolerate our helplessness and fear because, even though it’s hard, we know deep down it’s the right thing to do.
Life is often messy, chaotic, and uncertain. Denial will catch up to you eventually.
All you need to know
Cultivating greater psychological sophistication won’t guarantee you happiness or success, but it sure can help:
Practice thinking about your thinking.
Be compassionate with your mistakes.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your thoughts.
Learn to accept your emotions.
Take responsibility for your actions.
Distinguish desires from values.
Have the humility to ask for help when you need it.