Positive Psychology Insights: Rumination for Individuals and Teams

By Chris Ihrig

Creating an environment of excellence requires good people and good knowledge. After Martin E. P. Seligman announced that the study of psychology needed to look at and understand what makes us do well and not just what illness looks like, insights about how to increase human potential have become more abundant.

Complaining about things that have gone wrong, things that aren’t as we wish they were, and worry about the future are common activities.

In psychological terms, when we worry, we are ruminating. The terms origin stems from the way cows regurgitate their food and chew it again. When a cow chews its cud, it is ruminating. While cows have to ruminate, people don’t.

When we are worried, we are imagining outcomes that we do not want. If we wanted the outcome, we would call it visualizing or fantasizing. If we pay attention to our energy and our mood when we ruminate, we can feel them decline. The very energy we need to create the outcome we want instead of the one we’re thinking about is consumed by our worry.

Rumination makes us feel threatened. It diverts energy toward handling the threat and activates our stress response system.

When two or more people ruminate together, researchers refer to it as co-rumination. It has the same pitfalls as rumination. It can be even worse. Some helpful people act like alarms on our phone that remind us of our worries—bringing it up when we aren’t worried and tanking our energy all over again.

It’s okay to notice things that aren’t as we want them to be. It’s okay to notice that there are risks we need to manage. But how we respond to mistakes made, perceived risks, and things that aren’t as we want them to be determines what we do about them.

Whether we decide that a mistake was made, something isn’t as we want, or that risk is on the horizon, in every case we have made a decision. That decision is that we know what we do not want. In the moment we decide we know what we do not want we have the ability to discern what we do want.

If we turn our attention to creating what we want instead of ruminating about what we do not want, we achieve more. We are more energized. Creating what we want always generates more energy and less stress than fighting against what we do not want.