Try not to think about a white polar bear.
No, actually try it. For a full minute, try not to think about a white polar bear.
How'd it go?
Generally speaking, if you try not to think about a white polar bear, the one thing you're going to think about is... a white polar bear. It's called ironic process theory, and it was introduced to me in The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman's book about happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking. The polar bear exercise originates from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1863 account of his travels in Western Europe and was popularized by Harvard University's Daniel Wegner.
The white polar bear thought experiment teaches us a lot about thought suppression. Namely, that it doesn't work. Some research even suggests that it could be counter-productive. This highlights one of the problems with using "positive thinking" to achieve so-called happiness. Positive thinking that requires the suppression of negative thoughts is doomed to fail because suppressing thoughts, be them negative or about white polar bears, doesn't work.
Two effective alternatives to thought suppression are fairly counterintuitive, but surprisingly effective.
One is to simply embrace the thought you're trying to avoid. Fully embrace it and spend a specified amount of time thinking about nothing but that white polar bear. It's a technique known as "exposure" and confronting the thoughts you're trying to avoid tends to be a relatively effective way of getting more control over your thoughts.
A second approach is to distract yourself. It's easier said than done, but if you're trying to not think about a white polar bear, try thinking about a red Volkswagen or going to a CrossFit class instead. Distraction, through thought and/or action, serves to proactively refocus the mind on something, which research (and experience) suggests is more effective than trying to actively not focus on something. Which makes sense given that the very act of forcing a particular thought out of your mind requires some awareness of that thought to begin with.
More on this and other techniques can be read about in one of my favorite books of all time, The Antidote, which I routinely reference. Sometimes multiple times in one post.
This post is part of my #BestAdvice blog series, which is a personal project of mine to document the best advice I come across in a retrievable manner. Read more about it here.