I’m what psychologists call a “defensive pessimist”, which is to say that my preferred way of dealing with the worry that things might be about to get really bad is to assume that they probably will.
As the saying goes, it’s the hope that kills you – whereas the defensive pessimist enjoys the guarantee of always being either a.) proven correct or b.) pleasantly surprised.
Even this approach hasn’t fully immunised me, though, against the special anxiety of this moment, as Britain waits to learn the full consequences of “freedom day”, and many other nations stumble toward some version of normality.
One recent US survey found that almost half those questioned felt uneasy about returning to a life of in-person social interactions. And even some vaccinated people are suffering what clinicians call “cave syndrome”, characterised by a deep reluctance to leave lockdown-style seclusion.
Personally, I’m more worried about a return to lockdowns than their ending. But one thing unites us all: fear of what the future might hold. It might be tempting to assume that there are only two options for responding to this sort of anxiety: either to ignore it (by trying to convince yourself the future isn’t full of uncertainty) or to obey it (for example by becoming a shut-in).
In fact, though, there’s a third: to take anxiety seriously, to try to understand it – not to live a life more constrained than before Covid, but precisely so as to move more calmly into the future, and seize the opportunity to spend more of our post-pandemic time on the things we care most deeply about.
The first thing to understand about anxiety, as the writer and behavioural psychology expert James Clear explains, is that it’s there to serve a purpose – to alert us to danger, so we’ll take action to protect ourselves.
Unfortunately, however, it evolved in conditions radically different from those in which we find ourselves today. The prehistoric savannah was an “immediate-return environment”.
If you heard a rustling in the bushes, an inner throb of fear would motivate you to take action right away, by running away or fighting, whereupon the threat would be neutralised, and the anxiety could dissipate.
Compare that to today’s “delayed-return environment”: it often takes years to feel the benefits of the positive things we do (such as studying for degrees, or squirrelling money away into savings accounts); and a similarly long time to feel the full cost of the negative ones (such as eating too much junk food, or failing to keep up an exercise habit). And so anxiety arises – we worry about whether we’ll get the degree, or have enough money in retirement, or die young, etc – but has nowhere to go.
As a consequence, we spend our days stewing in unresolved uncertainty.
Infectious diseases, of course, aren’t exactly a recent phenomenon. And yet, ironically, thanks to modern medicine, even Covid is a matter of delayed returns too. If you’re fully vaccinated and take precautions, you probably won’t get a serious case of it – but you won’t know this until the pandemic is definitively finished. In the meantime, an undertone of anxiety pervades every day.
Finally, the modern-day “attention economy” makes matters worse, because every media organisation – and on social media, every person – gets rewarded, with clicks and likes, for pushing the panic levels up another notch. Exposure flows to those willing to spread the most anxiety (in the case of Covid, either about how bad the virus is, or by claiming that experts and politicians are lying about it).
As a result, the awkward truth is that those of us who pride ourselves on taking the pandemic seriously probably have an exaggerated sense of its gravity – not because it isn’t incredibly grave, but because however grave it is, an attention-based online economy will always incentivise even responsible commentators to go further still.
So what’s an anxiety-afflicted human supposed to do? The most basic and important strategy for dealing with uncertainty dates back to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: focus on what you can control, as opposed to what you can’t. (The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, draws a similar distinction: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”)
You can’t guarantee that you’ll never lose your job, but you can save your money wisely, and keep your skills sharp; likewise, you can’t determine Boris Johnson’s Covid reopening strategy – but you can get vaccinated, and keep wearing a mask when indoors among strangers.
For those invested in activism, this is also an argument in favour of spending at least some of your time and attention locally, on things where you might see concrete results. To spend your days “fighting climate change”, defined in such a nebulous way – as opposed to, say, volunteering to help restore a local wildlife preserve – is to pitch yourself directly into a domain where you can’t expect to have any individual control, and in which the final worth of your actions won’t be knowable for years or even centuries to come.
There’s a deeper truth to be grasped about feelings of uncertainty, though, which is that in an important sense they’re entirely rational: the future really is completely uncertain, always. It’s common to hear it said, in the era of Brexit and Trump and Covid, that we live in unprecedently uncertain times.
But in fact, it’s always true that anything could happen at any moment; it’s just that in certain phases of history it’s been easier than it is now for people to delude themselves otherwise.
CS Lewis made this point vividly in a sermon he delivered in London, at the beginning of the Second World War. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” he told his audience. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
War, disease, political shocks and countless other terrifying occurrences are as old as humanity. And so it made no sense, Lewis went on, to put life “on hold” until the war was over and a sense of existential security had been restored. The war would come to an end. But existential security would always remain an illusion.
The more general lesson here is that waiting to feel certain before you launch some initiative that matters to you – a career change, a creative project, committing to or leaving a relationship – is a recipe for never getting round to it at all. You’ll never know that you’re sufficiently qualified, or that economic conditions will remain favourable, or that things will turn out well, for the simple reason that you won’t find any of that out until the future – which hasn’t happened yet.
Indeed, on reflection, it’s actually rather strange that we tell ourselves we require certainty in order to build fulfilling lives, because in fact the opposite is true: it’s uncertainty that we require. Consider things retrospectively for a moment.
Whatever or whoever you value most in your life as it is now, you’ll probably agree that things only turned out that way thanks to forces beyond your control. You might easily never have been invited to the party where you met your future spouse; your parents might never have moved to the neighbourhood near the school with the teacher who spotted your hidden gifts.
We experience anxiety because of the fact that the future is open-ended – but the open-endedness that means something terrible might happen at any moment is the same open-endedness that permits the good things to happen, too. Or as the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm put it: “Uncertainty is the very condition that impels man to unfold his powers.”
In the end, the only way to respond to life’s endemic uncertainty is to take action: to do something, however minuscule, to move in the direction of whatever it is you want to accomplish, even though you doubt your qualifications, or the economy might crash, or a hundred other unforeseen factors might get in the way.
Apart from anything else, you’ll get immediate feedback: you take action, the sky doesn’t fall in, and the result is that you find yourself slightly less anxious, and slightly more able to keep moving.
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As an old line popular with psychotherapists has it, it’s much easier to act yourself into new ways of thinking than to think yourself into new ways of acting.
Besides, I find this approach meshes nicely with my commitment to defensive pessimism, the outlook that if you expect the worst you’re spared the possibility of nasty surprises. After all, if you’re convinced there’s zero chance of your plans for your life turning out perfectly… you might as well make a start on them. What have you got to lose? Wait for conditions to be perfect, on the other hand, and you’re guaranteed to be waiting a very long time.
FIVE WAYS TO THRIVE AMID UNCERTAINTY
Ask yourself: “Do I have a problem now?”
The whole essence of worry is that you’re troubled by something that isn’t actually happening right now. (If it were happening, you’d probably be dealing with it perfectly competently.) The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle recommends interrupting rumination by asking yourself if anything’s truly wrong in the present moment. Occasionally the answer may be yes – physical pain is one example. But you’ll be surprised how often the issue is that you’re bracing yourself for something that hasn’t yet occurred, and possibly never will.
Find something to measure
Quantifying your activities, as James Clear points out, “takes an unknown quantity and makes it known”. You can’t know if your novel will get published, but you can commit to writing 500 words a day; you can’t know if your children will live happy or accomplished lives, but you can make sure that family dinners happen four nights a week – and so on. Each time you succeed in some quantifiable daily goal, you’ve experienced a victory, even if the result of your efforts won’t be clear for years.
Outsource your decision-making
A standard response to uncertainty is paralysing indecision, as you weigh seemingly equal courses of action, and find yourself unable to choose. In this situation, it’s almost always a good idea to ask someone else, who knows you well, what they think you should do. Don’t expect their answer to dispel your uncertainty; it almost certainly won’t. But you should probably take their advice anyway. Because they know your personality and your preferences in broader strokes than you do, and because they’re less invested in the matter at hand, their outlook will be less distorted by irrelevant details.
Reduce your time horizon…
Professional forecasters know it’s much easier accurately to predict what will happen next week compared to next month, and next month compared to next year. (There’s a reason nobody bothers forecasting the weather in any detail, more than about two weeks out.) So in conditions of uncertainty, setting goals for the year, or even the quarter, may be a recipe for anxiety, since deep down you’ll know unexpected setbacks are inevitable. By contrast, if you decide only on the progress you’d like to make between now and this time next week, you’re far more likely to be able to stick to the plan.
…or greatly increase it
For a calming jolt of perspective, think in decades or even centuries. It’s a cliché to note that few of the things you’re worried about now will matter a hundred years from now – but it’s a cliché because it’s true. And you needn’t even zoom out that far. Weren’t you stressed about things six months ago that never turned out to be an issue? Our worries are almost always out of proportion to the threat in question, and reminding yourself of that near-universal bias can be a helpful way to talk yourself back down from the ledge.
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. His latest book, Four Thousand Weeks, is out in August and is now available for pre-order