5 Tiny Habits That Will Make You More Psychologically Sophisticated Than 98% Of People

Being sophisticated in any area of life is no guarantee of either happiness or success but it can help.

Sophisticated people Jacob Lund | Canva 

Being sophisticated in any area of life is no guarantee of either happiness or success. But it usually helps:

  • Intellectual sophistication doesn’t guarantee academic success, a steady income, or a satisfying career. But it sure helps. Knowing how to study well, for example, makes it a lot easier to get through school with good grades.
  • Social sophistication doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage, genuine friendships, or healthy working relationships. But it sure helps. Being able to pick up on subtle social cues, for example, makes it a lot easier to be compassionate and helpful to the people in your life.

In this article, I make the case that psychological sophistication follows a similar pattern:


Becoming more psychologically sophisticated is no guarantee of emotional well-being — but it helps!

When you understand how your mind works with greater sophistication, it becomes much easier to manage difficult moods and emotions healthily. And if you can do that, success and happiness often are not far behind.

Here are 5 tiny habits that will make you more psychologically sophisticated than most people:

1. Think about your thinking

Psychologically sophisticated people are curious about their minds and how they work. They routinely think about their thoughts and thinking patterns.

In technical terms, this is called meta-cognition. It means you are aware of the fact that you’re thinking things and able to assess the quality and usefulness of that thinking.


For example: Psychologically unsophisticated people often say things like: I just got so worried and I couldn’t stop thinking of all the bad things that might happen I knew it, I was in the middle of a panic attack.

In reality, worry is something you do, not something that happens to you. It’s a habitual pattern of thinking that leads to tremendous anxiety and stress. But without the habit of thinking about your thinking, it feels is something that just happens to you.

On the other hand, if you have the habit of thinking about your thinking, you’ll notice that worry is an activity and something we do. And as a result, it’s something we can, with practice, not do — or at least not do nearly so much of.

When you’re curious about your thoughts, it’s a lot easier to work with them instead of fighting against them.


"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."

― Carl Jung



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2. Be compassionate with mistakes

Psychologically sophisticated people tend to be compassionate with themselves when they fail or make mistakes rather than beating themselves up.


Self-compassion just means that you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

If a good friend, for example, failed an exam or bombed a job interview and was disappointed, you probably would not say something like:

God, what’s wrong with you? I told you you should have prepared longer. You’re probably just not cut out for this.

If you’re a good friend, you’d probably say something more like this:

I can see you’ly disappointed in yourself. It must be hard, especially since you put so much work into preparing. But I think you’ll bounce back and get it next time. This is just a better way to treat people. So why not treat yourself like that too?


Finally, know that self-compassion is not some new-age, woo-woo positive self-talk thing. It’s not fundamentally about being nice to yourself. It’s about being honest and realistic.

If you make a mistake and feel bad about it, there’s a very good chance you’ll improve the next time and be fine in the long run. Ignoring that possibility by blasting yourself with judgmental negative self-talk is just as dishonest as puffing yourself up with overly positive nonsense.

When you make mistakes, be compassionate and treat yourself like you would treat a good friend — with honesty and support.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”

― John Holmes

3. Accept your emotions

Psychologically sophisticated people understand that they can’t directly control their emotions.


For example, no modern legal system I’ve ever heard of punishes people for feeling angry. Instead, you only get punished or convicted if you act on your anger and become aggressive in some way. The reason is:

You can’t be morally accountable for something you can’t control.

You can’t calm down your anger any more than you can turn down your sadness or turn up your happiness. Rather, we can only influence our emotions indirectly, via how we choose to think and behave.

A major implication of all this is that it doesn’t make any sense to try and control your emotions, judge yourself for them, or expect them to be anything other than exactly what they are.


Instead, the most realistic approach to any kind of emotion — including painful ones — is to be validating and accepting of them:

  • When you feel anxious, instead of trying not to appear anxious to other people around you, start reminding yourself that it makes sense that you feel this anxious given the situation and the amount of stress you’ve been under.
  • When you feel sad upon remembering a recently deceased loved one, remind yourself that it’s entirely natural and normal to feel sad when we recall people and things we’ve loved and lost. It’s called grief and it’s perfectly normal.
  • When you feel angry at your kids for not listening, remind yourself that anger is a normal response to injustice on any scale. So feeling angry makes sense, even if you aspire not to act on it.

Accepting your emotions means being clear-eyed and realistic about the true nature of emotions. They are not good or bad, dangerous or healthy. They simply are.

If you struggle frequently with difficult emotions, begin by acknowledging that your emotions aren’t good or bad and that you can’t control them directly. If you do this first, you’ll find it far easier to move on from difficult emotions in a way that’s productive and healthy.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

— Shakespeare



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4. Take responsibility for your actions

Psychologically sophisticated people take responsibility for the things they are under their control — their actions.

Importantly, taking responsibility is not a mere intellectual exercise. Most people understand on a conceptual level that they are responsible for their actions. What differentiates psychologically sophisticated people is that they know that mere understanding isn’t enough. They know that they must remind themselves of it regularly and practice the skill of taking responsibility.

For example, many people struggle with lateness. They’re chronically showing up late to events, submitting work late, and generally just being sluggish about the things they’ve committed to. Now, most of these people would acknowledge that they should take responsibility for being on time. But they don’t do anything differently.

Psychologically sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change.


On the other hand, a person with more psychological sophistication would acknowledge that they need to create a plan to incentivize them to be on time. If they’re showing up late for work, they might set a recurring alarm in their honor prep for their day the evening before, or commit to carpooling so they were forced to be on time through social accountability.

In other words, psychologically sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change. They know that to be truly responsible for our actions, we need to take practical steps to facilitate them.

Instead of relying on willpower, luck, or good intentions, they take responsibility not just for the outcome they wish to achieve, before to building the process they need to get there.

"Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."

― Sigmund Freud

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5. Distinguish values from desires

Psychologically sophisticated people are crystal clear about the difference between short-term whims and desires and long-term values and goals.

many ways, the fundamental struggle we all face is that we have Stone Age brains in a modern world. For example, our brains crave simple sugars and carbs. While these would have been rare and valuable hunter-gatherer days, they led us to overeat, obesity, and all the health problems that stem from an abundance of widely available, inexpensive, and wonderfully tasty treats in modern life.

Our desire pulls us one way and our values pull another. And more often than not, our desires win.


Of course, it is possible to resist the pull of unhelpful short-term desires like craving unhealthy food, risky sexual impulses, or gambling. But a basic prerequisite is that we stay mindful of the cost of indulging these desires:

  • Sure, more sugar tastes good, but Type II Diabetes makes life a real struggle.
  • Sex is fun. STDs… not so much.
  • Gambling is exciting until you run out of money and can’t pay your mortgage.

The real problem is not that we have short-term desires, it’s that we forget about our long-term values.

Which means the trick to navigating life in a way that leads to genuine happiness and success comes down to keeping our values and highest aspirations front and center:

  • It’s easier to resist that second bowl of ice cream when you imagine how important it is that you have enough energy to wrestle and play tag with your kids.
  • It’s easier to say no to a risky sexual encounter when you remind yourself of the type of love and connection you crave.
  • It’s easier to save your money and invest it wisely instead of blowing it on cheap thrills when you’re regularly reminding yourself of that lake house you’re going to buy and enjoy in 10 years.

Of course, getting clear about your values and reminding yourself of them doesn’t make resisting unhelpful desires easy. It’s always a struggle, often with many complicating factors.


But if you’re going to have a fighting chance, you need the positive force of your highest values and aspirations to help you stay the course.

Make time to regularly consider and remind yourself of what’s most important to you and you’re far less likely to get distracted by things that aren’t.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

— Greg McKeown



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Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer sharing practical advice for emotional health and well-being. He is the founder of The Friendly Minds newsletter.