Never forget the indelible link between your mental and physical health. If the mind is wracked with anxiety or depression, it follows that the body cannot operate at its highest functioning level. Luckily, psychologists have a great tool for improving mental health: metacognition (literally, “self thought”).
What separates those who live fulfilling, meaningful lives from those who sleepwalk through their day-to-day existence? One of the best predictors of a satisfying life seems to be an individual’s level of mindfulness. Do you live an examined life, or do you simply go through your days in a haze? Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses, or do you allow your ego to dictate your self-image?
In 1979, psychologist John Flavell coined the term “metacognition” to describe the act of being acutely aware of one’s own thoughts and tendencies. Following the etymology of the word metacognition, we discover two parts: meta and cognition. Cognition, of course, refers to the process of thinking. Meta, on the other hand, implies a mirror, or an emphasis on the deeper self. Thus, metacognition is described as “thinking about your thinking,” “knowledge of knowledge,” or the conscious regulation of our thought processes.
Metacognition is so much more than just a fancy term with a seemingly esoteric meaning. It’s the ability to self-analyze, to be aware of our usual tendencies (both good and bad) — and then, critically, to be able to adjust those tendencies or thoughts mid-stream.
For example, a frequent procrastinator who is only dimly aware of their habit of putting things off will probably find the inertia of procrastination too much to escape from. However, a metacognitive procrastinator is keenly aware of this character trait of theirs, and is able to recognize when they are, say, looking at their phone instead of working. Most importantly, they’ll be able to will themselves to get back to the task at hand thanks to the empowering nature of their self-awareness.
Metacognition has implications across every discipline and lifestyle. A metacognitive concert pianist will notice when they are playing a passage too loudly, and will be able to adjust on the fly. A metacognitive student might recognize that they study better in a coffee shop than at home, and make sure to get out of the house before a big test.
Next time you’re feeling stressed or worried about a situation in your life, consider using metacognition to determine whether your fears are warranted; and if they are, how you can rationally analyze them to make the best of your situation. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” So, make sure your color is a good one!