The notion that thinking faster could make you happy may seem on the face of it absurd. But consider some of the evidence. People with mania, who complain of racing thoughts, often find the sensation exhilarating. When you meet someone who’s in a manic phase, they often seem cheerier and more pleasant than anyone you’ve known.
Research in an entirely different field, music, has found that the tempo of background music played during a test can affect performance in tests of spatial ability. The faster the music, the better the mood of the participants, and the better they performed.
Emily Pronin and Daniel Wegner took a look at this and other evidence and began to wonder if the speed of thought itself could be what caused mood to improve. But how do you increase the speed of thought?
They devised a simple and elegant method: They simply asked volunteers to read words aloud as they scrolled onto a computer screen, one letter at a time. In the slow-thought condition, the words scrolled at a rate of about 6 letters per second. In the fast thought condition, the words scrolled at 20 letters per second. This compares to about 12 letters per second when people read aloud in a natural voice. After the test, the fast readers indicated that they felt they were thinking at a faster rate compared to the slow readers, and they indeed said they were generally in a better mood.
But there are other ways to manipulate mood. One classic method was developed by Emmett Velten. Velten simply asked people to read statements that were progressively either more depressing or elating. At the outset, the statements are neutral (“today is no better or worse than any day”), but by the end, the statements are definitive (“wow! I feel great” or “I want to go to sleep and never wake up”). By the end of the procedure, people genuinely feel better or worse, depending on the particular sequence of phrases they have read.
Pronin and Wegner’s study combined both the Velten mood induction procedure with their own speed-of-thought manipulation. They divided 144 Princeton students into two groups. One group read the depressing Velten phrases, while the other group read the elating phrases. As you might guess, each of these groups was again divided in half, with half reading the phrases slowly and half reading the phrases quickly. Afterwards, mood was assessed by asking them to rate their levels of happiness, excitement, and enthusiasm on a scale of 1 to 9. Here are the results:
The speed of the reading had a significant impact on the volunteers’ ratings of their positive emotions. In fact, the fast readers in the depression group rated their positive emotions just as high as the slow readers in the elation group. In separate responses, they also rated their energy, feelings of power, and creativity higher when they read faster. And of course, they rated their perceived thought speed significantly higher:
Even after reading depression-inducing texts, thought speed was just as high as in the elation-inducing group.
One question this study doesn’t answer is what, precisely is occurring in the brain when we “think faster.” Are neurons firing more rapidly? Are we literally moving faster from thought to thought, keeping each thought in our minds for a shorter period of time? Perhaps the effort of reading quickly simply distracts readers from negative thoughts — the literal “speed” of thought doesn’t increase, but rather, the brain is occupied with a difficult task and so doesn’t have the ability to process other tasks, such as harboring negative feelings.
Still, as the authors point out, it does demonstrate quite effectively that processing negative language more quickly doesn’t appear to intensify the effect of the language — in fact the reverse occurs, and mood improves when we read faster. Pronin and Wegner even suggest that their speed-of-thought manipulation might have some applications in therapy, where people might be able to improve their mood through simple, fast-reading exercises.
Pronin, E., & Wegner, D.M. (2006). Manic thinking: Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological Science, 17(9), 807-813.