We Tend to Think More About Tasks That Are Unfinished

a hand holding a single puzzle piece
Image by Eli Christman / CC BY

Compersion has a semi-exalted status in polyamorous circles. Simply stated, compersion (also known as confelicity or mudita) is delight in the happiness of others — even when that happiness has little or nothing to do with you. When you get down to it, compersion is just a very specific kind of empathy, one that runs counter to our cultural expectations.

Sometimes I’ll get letters from readers asking me how they can turn their jealousy into compersion. Sadly, I haven’t found that this is the way it works. As I’ve written before, compersion is not a magic bullet for jealousy. While compersion is sometimes called “the opposite of jealousy,” it’s possible to feel compersion and jealousy at the same time. I sure did.

You can feel happy that your partner is happy and also feel insecure, overshadowed, displaced, envious, or any of the other things that masquerade as jealousy.

That said, compersion can be extremely helpful and a pleasant experience even if it doesn’t automatically wipe out jealousy. And even if you don’t experience compersion naturally, through careful practice, it’s possible to learn how (and in the process to also unlearn unhelpful cultural scripts that tell us that happiness is zero sum).

I’ve written a few times now about how to cultivate compersion (consciously refocusing/reframing, personalizing vicarious joy, practicing random acts of kindness, gratitude journaling, etc.).

But knowing the methods is one thing; implementing them is another altogether. And like anything else, there’s often a wide gulf to be crossed between theory and practice.

When it comes to retraining your brain, scientists have found that for the most part, how often you do something tends to be more important than how long you do it. Often, thinking about something for a few seconds several times a day can have a larger impact on your baseline mood and attitude than devoting a single large chunk of time to consciously focusing on it.

But how do you manage something like this? How do you remember to revisit those thoughts, work on that goal?

If you play your cards right, it’ll be effortless to remember. Because thankfully, the Zeigarnik effect can be a powerful secret weapon.

We Tend to Think More About Tasks That Are Unfinished

What’s the Zeigarnik effect? Simply stated, it’s our tendency to ruminate on and better remember tasks that are unfinished.

Gratitude journaling tends to be a particularly effect method of fostering compersion simply because it has Zeigarnik effect built into it, especially if you journal about the things you’re grateful for at the end of each day.

If you adhere to this practice faithfully, over time you’ll start to automatically seek out things to be thankful for throughout the day — because you know you have that homework assignment waiting for you. This primes you to be actively looking for things to appreciate.

And so long as you don’t write them down anywhere, even if you do find your five things to express gratitude for (a very standard number for gratitude journaling, although some have opted for more or less) fairly early on in the day, your brain will think of them several times, as a way of retaining that information until you can write it down and complete the task.

If You Want to Think About Something You Did A Lot, Don’t Tell Anyone You Did It

We also tend to ruminate and remember things that we are trying not to tell anybody about longer than those we have.

So let’s say that you’re practicing random acts of kindness as a way to foster more compersion at baseline. Doing it as often as you can manage is a big help and even more important than the size of the gesture (again, frequency triumphs over duration or intensity).

But a lot of people mess up when they try to attempt random acts of kindness, robbing themselves of most of their effects. How do they do this?

They tell people about it.

This results in the initial boost of feel-good vibes from helping someone — and possibly another wave of positive attention or appreciation from others that you told that you did something nice for someone else. But you’re likely to forget about it and move on at this point, if you tell someone. And that’s basically all you get.

Conversely, if you keep your acts of kindness a secret, you are more likely to think of them over and over again, getting more mileage out a single act. After a while of doing secret acts, you’ll start to feel like you’re a kindness ninja — in the best possible way.

So while it’s tempting to brag about your exploits, you’re robbing yourself of a lot of good feelings when you do so.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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