The Decorated Room

Welcome to The way we think is fascinating. The Decorated Room is a simple example that explores how complex and interesting it is. It shows that to understand our feelings we need to first understand our thoughts. With practice you can use it to reduce unwanted feelings, be calmer and live more the way you want to. When you have read it we would be delighted to hear your comments or questions. Take care and enjoy.

Suppose you’ve been working hard decorating a room. By the time you finish you’ve been over every square inch of the room. You know the room in great detail. In particular, you’ll be aware of any imperfections.

Later when you sit in your room you can let your eye be drawn to these imperfections. In reality you are choosing to focus on them, though you may not realise this at the time.

However, rather than seeing these imperfections as unimportant you can judge them as mistakes and failures on your part. Again it is likely you won’t be aware that this judgement is an act on your part.

You can take your thinking one step further and decide this means you haven’t done a good job.

You can go further still and draw a bigger conclusion. You can tell yourself it’s not just on this occasion you haven’t been as careful as you should’ve been; you can convince yourself you’re not a good decorator.

But maybe it’s not just decorating you do badly. Maybe it’s anything practical you turn your hand to; you’re just not a very practical person; certainly not as good as you should be.

Now you are just one short step away from drawing an even bigger conclusion. After all it’s not just practical things but it’s most things about you as a person. You’re not the person you should be.

If you do this sort of thinking there’s only one way you can feel; unhappy about the room and unhappy about yourself. Having talked yourself into this frame of mind chances are your thinking will gather pace. Without trying, examples from the past when you’ve messed up pop into your mind. Similarly you might find yourself making gloomy predictions about how things will turn out in the future.

This may at first seem like an exaggeration of the way we think. However, it is what we do. Think about a time you have been in a bad mood. Try to track down the ongoing train of thoughts that laid behind your feelings. Or choose a time when you felt really good. Don’t simply focus on any things that had happened but try to identify how you had valued them and what thoughts this had led to.

Thinking has momentum. Often it is as if we’re a barrister in the court of human competence being paid handsomely to make a case against ourself.

Experience is the child of thought Benjamin Disraeli

However, let’s pause for a moment.

As you’re sitting in your room a friend comes in. It’s the first time they’ve been since you decorated and they’re keen to see how it’s turned out. They remember how it used to look and how it was a little tired and old fashioned though they never said. They look around. They don’t see the imperfections. What they see is the overall look; the clean fresh look, the colour scheme; the way the room is laid out etc.

What do they think? They like it; the clean fresh look, the colour scheme etc. It’s a great improvement. They decide you’ve done a good job; that you must be a good decorator; that you must be a practical person; that you’re an OK person. They may even envy your skill and creativity.

How would it be if you thought the same as your friend? How would you feel then?

You’d appreciate the way the room looked; you’d value the improvements and you’d feel pleased with yourself. If you looked at the room in this alternative way, different, happier memories will pop effortlessly into your mind; if you thought about the future you’d make optimistic predictions about what you could do and how things would turn out. 

So what can we take from this thought experiment?

Well, firstly, there’s only one decorated room. However good a decorator you are there will always be imperfections. Secondly, the room does nothing to make you look at it in one way or another. While you may be unaware you’ve made any choices, it is the way you have chosen to look at the room and not the room itself that determines how you feel as you sit there.

When we look at something, even as simple as a decorated room, we are actually doing a lot of choosing. We are choosing what to focus on, how to judge it and what it means or how much it matters. The more we make something matter the stronger our feelings will be – good or bad.

Our thinking determines our feelings. If we want to manage our feelings better, a good place to start is to ask;

“What am I focusing on now?”

”Is this really what I want to do now?”

”What else could I be thinking about?”

Other questions we can go on to ask are; “How am I judging things? How am I making it matter? What am I imagining might happen? What am I thinking other people would think? How am I comparing myself with others?”

The Decorated Room shows us thinking is detailed and dynamic; we take different views of the same thing at different times. It is a metaphor for the ordinary way we normally think about many situations; our relationships, our jobs, ourselves, even life itself. It is not just an argument for positive thinking. It illustrates the three basic and natural psychological processes involved in our thinking.  With practice we can use it to recognise this and reduce the detail and intensity of our more negative thoughts or rediscover other ways of looking at any situation.

As we change our thoughts our feelings inevitably change because our feelings are built into the judgements and conclusions we are making.

There is no right way to think, there are only choices. The Decorated Room does not suggest HOW we should think. It only shows us why it is a good idea to pay more attention to the detail of our thoughts. This is quite different to most messages in the media. These tell us to focus on how we feel, not on the thoughts behind our feelings. If we focus only on our feelings culture then encourages us to judge these as unwanted, bad or even abnormal. We are then a short step from concluding we have a condition or disorder. From this point of view it seems our only option is to seek expert treatment. If instead we recognise that it is our thoughts that lie behind our feelings we are empowered to help ourselves. We can take a different view of our circumstances just like in the Decorated Room.

When we think we’re actually doing something (hence the name of this website; thinkingasaction). When we recognise this we begin to look in the right place if we want to help ourselves feel better.

Act as if what you think makes a difference; it does.

Live more consciously.

For more on The Decorated Room and its uses (including how it helps us understand the ordinary psychology of our moods) read Thinking Matters; ideas from the Decorated Room is available (paper and kindle) at

review of Thinking Matters;
“one of the most lucid and humane treatments of the subject I have ever read. It tackles some of the largest qyestions with admirable lightness. The question of how to be happy or at least less unhappy is central to the book”  Alain de Botton, author and broadcaster.


If you found the Decorated Room interesting try some other pages e.g., Two People on a Plane. It shows the very ordinary bits of thinking (psychological acts) we must perform to feel anxious.

Incidentally, not all of what we can learn from the Decorated Room is entirely new;

“The mind at once sees a thing as positive and in the next moment the same thing as negative.” John Milton (1608 – 1674)

“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” John Milton