Monday, May 16, 2011

Why Worry?

            I started this blog with the assertion that I find I have great doubts about many of the things people take for granted. Today I am going to express another of these doubts: I seriously doubt the assertion that most people make that they want to be happy. Bullcrap.

            If people wanted to be happy, they would be. It is a simple as that. Happiness is not something that you earn, or that happens to you, or that has to be chased down with lust or gluttony or greed. Happiness is something that you either decide to possess or decide to forgo. Period.

            All of the great sages of the world's philosophies and religions agreed on pretty much two things, the only two things that any of them ever taught that are worth a damn; treat people how you want them to treat you and stop worrying about stuff you can't control. That's it. That's really all there is. There are no great mysteries out there, no secret wisdom that requires meditation or prayer or study or drugs to achieve, just two simple suggestions. Everything you ever needed to know about life and happiness is right there.

              We all know we could always use some improvement in the first one, and most of us are conscientious enough to always be trying to get a little better at that, day by day, so I will will leave that one for another time. But it is the second one that most people epic fail, and although I recognize this is a practice easier said than done, I'm going to spend a little bit of time saying something about it.

              There are several problems with worry. One, it's useless. Two, it's counter-productive. Three, it is pretty much the definition of unhappiness. Let's take these in order.

             Worry is useless. Worry is different than reflection. Reflecting is going over a problem you are faced with, determining your options, weighing the consequences of choosing those options, coming to a decision, and moving on to thinking about something else. The problem with worry is that right up until that last part, it looks a lot like reflection. But instead of putting the issue to rest, you start right back at the beginning, and go right back over the same problem, the same options, the same consequences, and the same decision. Over and over and over again. For what? Unless you've been presented with new knowledge, nothing has changed, so going over it again and again does nothing but conflate a simple decision into an all-consuming stress monster. Don't do it.

               Worry is counter-productive. By the time you have cycled through the same thoughts three or fourteen times, you have probably managed to make very small things into very big things. This happens because when your mind dwells on one thing for an extended period of time that thing becomes the whole world. It is no different than looking at something through a microscope. When all you see is the world trapped under the lens, of course every little thing seems huge. And when you have a distorted view of the value of things, you make poor judgments. So not only is worry useless, it is counter-productive, since it actually makes you less likely to come to the most sensible decision about a problem you are faced with. Don't do it.

            Worry is unhappiness. Think about it. What is unhappiness other than worry? Think about all the things that make people unhappy; worrying about what other people think, worrying about death, worrying about money, worrying about their spouse fooling around on them, worrying about what trouble their kids are getting into, worrying about whether or not they are going to get that job, worrying about whether or not they are going to pass that test, worrying about their weight, worrying about their health...

              It is not just that I have framed these things in terms of "worrying about" them. It is only when you put the term "worrying about" in front of any of these things that they actually invoke unhappiness. Some people don't care what other people think, some people aren't afraid of death, some people don't give a crap about money, some people don't care if their spouse sleeps with other people, some people don't care what trouble their kids get into... (Okay, I have a problem with that last one. Worrying about your kids is pretty much part of being a parent, but even then it can be done sanely or insanely.) In other words, none of these things, in and of themselves, automatically constitutes unhappiness. Only worrying about them makes it so. It is not just that worrying about things is part of what makes you unhappy. Worrying is the definition of unhappiness. Don't do it.

             So the question then, if you wish to be happy, is: Why Worry?

             There are times to worry, like when you see a grease fire spreading across your stove. Being "worried" about this is useful because you actually can do something about this. Worrying about death is not useful, because no matter how much time and energy you devote to thinking about it, agonizing over it, crying about it, being frustrated by it, you will never, ever change the very simple fact that you, like everyone else, is going to die. So what good did all of that do you? None at all. All it did was make you miserable about something that you have no control over, and spoiled some of the precious moments you have of not being dead.

            So the first step in learning not to worry is identifying things you don't have control over and things you do. Worrying about anything in the first category is useless, counter-productive and dooms you to unhappiness. Since the second category is made up of things you control, "worrying" would be an improper term here. We don't "worry" about whether or not we are going to step on the brake when we come upon a bunch of cars stopped at a light. However, we might worry that the brakes might fail. So as the example shows, by definition, "worry" only applies to the things we can't control.

              So this is the hilarious part. Let's look at these two definitions together.
  • Worrying is unhappiness. Thus, unhappiness is worrying.
  • Worrying is devoting time and energy to things you cannot control.
             So if we were to use the tautology of the first definition we arrive at:
  • Unhappiness is devoting time and energy to things you cannot control.
             So this is why I called bullcrap on most people's assertion that they want to be happy. We decide what we devote our time and energy to. If people want to be happy, the choice is simple- don't devote your time and energy to things you cannot control. But many people find themselves utterly incapable of this simple feat.

             Because deciding you are no longer going to worry is easy. Actually doing it is much harder. I'm going to try to help.

             There are two important aspects of learning not to worry about things over which you have no control. The first is identifying them. So I am going try to give the reader the beginning of a list of things over which they actually do, and which things they definitely do not, have control. I am going to try to focus on the things that people generally seem to waste their time worrying about. And since this is such a simple idea, I am going to list them simply. Some people might take issue with the placement of an item on either list, but I will be surprised if upon further reflection the reader does not acknowledge their correct placement.

Things We Do Not Control
             Death, the weather, taxes, other people's opinion of us, our pets, our children, the amount of money in our bank account, what people say about us, people cutting in front of us without using a turn signal, someone walking really slowly in front of you at the mall, the past, the future, the existence or non-existence of god, our looks, our weight, our health, our spouse's eye wandering to a 22 year-old's behind, our spouse's infidelity, our friends, our family, anyone else period...

Things We Do Control

             Our thoughts, our words, our deeds.

             The first list is incomplete. The second is as complete as it will ever be. Anything else you can think of, anything at all in the entire universe, add it to the first list. There is nothing else you can add to the second list, because there is nothing else in the universe that you control. Just you.

              The items from the second list are yours. Nothing else is. You can attempt to influence some of the items on the first list. Your words and deeds can influence the way other people think of you. But you can never control the way they think of you. So devote your time and energy to reflecting on your own words and deeds, and let them worry about what they think of you.

            You can't control how much money you have. You can't just give yourself money. (Unless you are the Chair of the Fed.) You can speak the right words at an interview, you can sign up for that overtime shift. But you might not get the job, or the shift might go to someone else. You did what you could, and now your mind should turn towards your next option. Worrying about what did not come to pass is simply deliberate unhappiness.

             And then there are things that no matter what you say, think or do, they are going to be what they are: death, taxes, the weather, the past, the future... Spending your precious time and energy on these is worse than foolish, its masochistic.

             The second part of learning not to worry is more challenging; learning to let go of these things. Learning to let go is something you have to teach yourself, I cannot help you. No one is inside your head but you. The only suggestions I can give are these; Learn to reflect on your own thoughts. When you find that you are angry, frustrated, annoyed or sad, stop, breathe, and ask yourself, "Why am I unhappy? Is it because of something I said, did or thought?" If it is, decide to speak, think or act differently next time. And then move on, because that is all you can do, until you are presented with the next challenge. But if that is not why you are upset, if you are unhappy about something you can't control, then ask yourself, "Why? What good is this doing me? Why am I choosing to be unhappy in this moment?" And then don't be.

             It's as simple as that. Be Happy.

(I should add a note here: I worry, ahem... I think that I might have unconsciously stolen some of the examples I use from my friend Brian Smith, whose book on similar themes I have had the pleasure of editing the early editions of. If that is the case I offer him my apologies, deliberate theft was not intended. Which is more than I can say for him bogarting my pulled pork recipe, so we'll call it good. : )



  1. That is an interesting angle of framing essentially what is a central theme to the book I'm writing. I never really thought of it in terms of worry- but worry is essentially the fretting of things beyond ones control.

    Like anything though "worry" has its place and developed in us for a bit of a reason. It calls attention to why some things are more important to pay attention to than others. It informs us that getting or not getting that potential job more drastically changes our future than say what opinion the neighbors dog has of the cat across the street. Worry also "reminds" us to make sure that we have accurately taken into account all of the factors that go into these important decisions by not letting us forget about them. It acts in this way as a reinforcement for a lack of any mental discipline.

    Worry is far more often detrimental, as you very astutely and accurately point out. Mostly because people place tremendous value on things that shouldn't be so important to them, and in this way they worry about things that are neither good or bad and far beyond their control. A correct alignment of value within ones sphere of what they can control puts worry to use as an indicator in the moment of what should be priority- but often instead it manifests itself as nail biting over who will win American Idol.

    As for your blatant plagiarism of my seminal work, I won't worry about it. Though equating me stealing a recipe you placed in the public domain to my super secret book does not meet with fair trade status.

  2. I disagree with both of you. Worry is one cause of unhappiness, but I don't think it is the only cause of unhappiness. I am an unhappy person, that's just my natural tendency. I certainly have control over my thoughts, actions, deeds, etc. People are born with personalities, and some people are naturally "up" and some are not. I don't describe myself as a worrier, I quit my job and moved to Nepal with no prospects, and most people would worry about jobs/apt/food, etc when making a live decision like that (and I'm sure I've caused many of my family members worry/unhappiness, but I didn't let it stop me/I didn't worry about it). I don't worry about riding on a motorcycle with no helmet, I don't worry about food poisoning, etc. And yet, I wouldn't say I'm happy every second of every day.