Rumination and goals: An underappreciated target for mental health intervention?

Featured photo by JD Mason on Unsplash

Rumination–perseverating over past autobiographical events–makes you unhappy. Being unhappy likely makes you ruminate too. People who are depressed tend to engage in rumination.

But let’s just focus on rumination as a cause of unhappiness.

“Alright,” you say. “how do I stop or reduce it?” Rumination seems mostly outside conscious control. And indeed if you try to suppress negative thoughts of the ruminative sort, they might just come back stronger.

rumination and spontaneous thought

Rumination is a kind of spontaneous thought–thought that is generated unintentionally. Other kinds of spontaneous thought include mind wandering and daydreaming. Spontaneous thought isn’t necessarily unpleasant, and it can even help you be more creative through providing novel insight.

Some current psychological theorizing suggests that spontaneous thought, whether of the pleasant or distressing kind, is driven by your goals. And by goals, I don’t mean just the ones that you’ve consciously and deliberately taken on. It’s more likely that the goals driving your spontaneous thought arose from some combination of your own deliberation, your actions in the world, your particular life history, your current opportunities, and who you are temperamentally.

For example, an alcoholic has the goal of getting a buzz on each day (or reducing feelings of withdrawal when she gets up in the morning). A parent may have the goal of ensuring his child’s safety. A lover has the goal of spending time with the beloved. An anorexic has the goal of becoming as thin as possible.

None of those are goals were likely generated by some SMART goal-setting exercise, the likes of which your corporate employer might encourage you through. So when I say “goals” here keep in mind we’re talking about objectives that you may not have explicitly decided to take on.

Up to half of your waking thoughts may be spontaneous thought related to topics having nothing to do with whatever you’re currently doing, and this activity likely uses the lion’s share of your brain’s energy resources. This must be an important activity for us, then! It’s unlikely that our brains would be doing something so resource- and time-intensive if it were unnecessary. It’s likely an activity that has been evolutionarily selected, and helps us do better at surviving and reproducing.

spontaneous thought and goals

Klinger’s theory of spontaneous thought says that it arises around discrepancies between our current situation and our unattained personal goals. On this theory, the purpose of spontaneous thought (to the extent it has a purpose which makes us evolutionarily fit, i.e., to survive and reproduce) is to remind us of our goals and to generate ideas and plans for action.

What happens with rumination then? Klinger suggests that rumination–“a repetitive, thematically homogeneous, and negatively valenced thinking style”–occurs when a person is blocked from attaining important goals. Rumination especially occurs with people prone to negative affectivity (the personality trait of neuroticism) or when people are exposed to highly stressful situations.

Spontaneous thought itself isn’t necessarily negative. It can be “open, expansive, and divergent” thinking that leads to better plans and improved goal attainment.

One thing that might help people who are ruminating too much is to help them release their blocked goals. An example of stuck focusing on goals is when someone has lost a relationship and wants to get it back. They engage in endless rumination over what went wrong, fantasize about getting back together, and remember the good times. This serves to keep them focused on a goal that is now likely blocked forever.

Different people have different abilities to disengage from a goal when it proves either impossible or maladaptive. Goal disengagement in the face of unattainable goals improves subjective well-being.


Most counseling techniques give little attention to people’s motivations and goals, and how these motivations and goals, when either blocked or dysfunctional, lead to emotional distress.

This is changing a little, however.

Third wave cognitive behavioral counseling techniques such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) recognize that values and goals matter. ACT seeks to motivate clients to identify their valued behavior and move towards it, regardless of distressing emotions. DBT includes some techniques for identifying objectives and working to obtain them through effective interpersonal skills.

Mindfulness-based approaches, of course, seek to help people disengage from the content of their spontaneous thought, and perhaps even decrease the amount of spontaneous thought. But this seems somewhat indirect.

Motivational interviewing may be the counseling technique that gives the most attention to motivation and goals. In this short-term technique, the focus is usually on a particular behavior such as alcohol or cigarette use, or exercise. Interviewing techniques are used to help the client explore her motivations and rework them towards what is more valued.

questions and thoughts

My own review of the mental health counseling and app landscape makes me wonder if the field is missing an opportunity to help people in more direct ways.

Granted, people’s emotions, thoughts, goals, motivations, and impulses are complexly inter-related. Which one do you target with the intervention? One in particular (like distorted thought patterns or fusing with thoughts)?

There are CBT apps like Woebot and Moodnotes, mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, addiction recovery apps like Sober Grid, but almost nothing that helps people get at the root of their dysfunctional motivations and goals.

The motivational interviewing apps I can find seem to target health care providers, providing training in motivational interviewing. Is this because the technique works best when driven by a human counselor?

Why not a bot that helps you explore and modify your motivations and goals? That acts as a sort of extended spontaneous thought generator that takes you out of rumination about blocked goals or dysfunctional attention to addictive motivations and gets you focused on more productive interactions with the world?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s