The Power of “Why?” How Asking this Simple Question Can Change Your Life
(4 min read)
We attend university to learn about a lot of different things, but one of the lessons that many of us take away from our post-secondary studies is the importance of critical thinking.
We’re taught that we should question the validity of just about everything we read: sources of information, quality of research conducted, size and attributes of sample populations, whether findings can be repeated across time, if bias is present or not, and so on.
Critical thinking is a good skill to have, of course. It helps generate rigorous sources of information and directs forward movement while encouraging open-mindedness.
However, I believe it’s a skill that many of us fail to use where it matters, possibly, the most. That is, in our very own lives. We tend go through the motions, often making decisions and taking actions based on what society tells us is normal, acceptable, or right. Ironically, it seems that we take these norms at face value without questioning their source, their validity, and so on — quite the opposite, I’d say, of what we were trained to do in school.
Take the decision to go to university, itself. In North America, the question isn’t “what are you going to do after you graduate from high school?” but, rather, “which university/college are you going to attend in the fall?” There is an automatic assumption that one will not only further one’s education, but do so right away.
After university comes the expectation that you’ll find a stable job, with a solid pension and benefits, and that you’ll buy a house. If a few more years have passed, you’d certainly better think about tying the knot because, my gosh, you’ve been with your partner for 8 years, and the two of you need to start thinking about having kids!
And on and on it goes…
Of course, meeting milestones in life is an important part of self-development, and let’s face it, they’ve worked for a lot people over a lot of time.
But, the truth is, they don’t always work for everyone, all of the time. In fact, many of the people I work with have lives that look fantastic “on paper,” but when it comes right down to it, they are miserable and can’t figure out why. “Why,” however, is exactly the question I believe we need to start asking ourselves more often. In asking “why,” I believe it’s possible to start freeing ourselves from the suffering that’s caused by blindly going through life, guided only by what’s expected of us. Doing so will open the door for alternate routes to personal “success.”
Consider the following fictional scenario in which John and Sarah, a young couple in their late 20’s, are contemplating marriage despite having had problems in their relationship for the last year. Sarah goes to see a therapist because she’s upset that John isn’t sure about getting married. Sarah, on the other hand, feels like it’s something they need to do before they turn 30:
Therapist (T): “Why is it so important that you get married before the age of 30?”
Sarah (S): “Because that’s just what we should do! We’ve been together for almost 5 years!”
T: “That’s not a good enough answer. Let me ask again: Why is it so important that you get married before the age of 30?”
S: “…I guess to have the guarantee of love for the rest of my life. If it doesn’t happen before I’m 30, then it might be too late to find someone else.”
T: “And why is the thought of not finding someone else so scary for you?”
S: “Because it could mean that I’ll be lonely forever.”
Often, asking “why” in this way, known as the downward arrow technique in Cognitive-Behevioural Therapy (CBT), gets us to the root of whatever we’re afraid of happening (or that we want to happen). This is a fantastic tool for increasing self-awareness about one’s ultimate motives in life, and can be used for further exploration of alternative means of fulfilling our needs.
At this point, it’s important to play devil’s advocate (another trademark of critical thinking!). The purpose is to brainstorm alternate ways of fulfilling Sarah’s underlying needs:
T: “Do you think that getting married before age 30 is an absolute guarantee that you will have love in your life forever?”
S: “In some ways, but I guess not necessarily. A lot of couples get divorced.”
T: “Yes, around half of all couples!”
S: “Ya, and even in marriages where people stay together, they might not stay in love.”
T: “Exactly. So, is it possible that you might end up feeling lonely even within the context of marriage, or that the marriage could end and you’d find yourself lonely in divorce?”
S: “That’s very possible. Espeically since we’ve had some problems lately.”
T: “Do you think there’s a way you could increase your chances of having lasting companionship that doesn’t involve getting married right now?”
S: “Maybe we could work on growing a more solid partnership and enjoy a few more life experiences together first.”
T: “In other words, taking more time to repair the foundation of your relationship could increase your chance of having a loving and lasting relationship into the future, whether married or not?”
S: “Ya, I suppose so.”
T: “Does this idea make you happy?”
S: “Ya, it’s actually a big relief!”
With Sarah’s desire to have lasting companionship at the root of her concerns, she’s able to identify alternate ways of finding fulfillment through the exercise of asking “why” and otherwise thinking critically about her situation. For Sarah, it was about much more than having a wedding before the age of 30, which she felt pressured to do. If she had held onto this societal expectation, her and John were either headed towards rushing into something they weren’t ready for, or John might have been scared away prematurely. Ironically, this would have made it more likely that Sarah’s biggest fear would come true!
Asking “why,” however, was the catalyst for questioning the societal expectation that was putting the relationship at risk. By meeting Sarah’s need in another way, the couple was able to reconcile their differences and move towards a decision that was right for both of them, regardless of what Sarah initially felt was such an important reason to get to the altar. At the end of the day, John and Sarah decided not to get married at all, they repaired their relationship, and enjoyed a satisfying life-partnership well into the future, without the fuss of an expensive wedding.
Asking ourselves “why” can be a scary task because it can push us out of our comfort zone, but it’s this very act that will open us up to new ways of thinking and in a way that will guide us towards more rewarding outcomes. Try asking yourself “why” the next time you are faced with a major life decision, or even with the little things you do every day! In the words of your primary school teachers, it’s time to put your [critical] thinking caps on!