*Uncertainty

From The Situationist:

[P]eople feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

(Full story here.)

I know this is true for me. When I know what’s what, I can deal. But when there is uncertainty, I try to figure out every possibility and plan accordingly. Rehearsing, considering, anticipating, casting my mind for every possible outcome. Repeat until the future unfolds. I can tell you that this process is exhausting. And that’s the reason I’ve been practising bringing myself back to the present moment.

This is why Buddhist monks have monasteries I suppose. It’s easier to meditate and practise mindfulness when uncertainty is reduced to basics. Take away sex, take away romantic love, take away employment, take away kids, take away finding and maintaining your own home, take away many forms of entertainment and hobbies–it simplifies things. Even then it takes years of daily practice and work to attain some consistent peace in the moment and with the moment.

Daniel Gilbert, who wrote Stumbling on Happiness, in looking at neuroscience and psychology, says that our imaginations are repetitive and inaccurate in conjuring up what we need to be happy or how we’ll react to what we think would just be disastrous. Studies find that happiness comes and goes and, once basic needs are met, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with anything in particular.

Or maybe the Buddha was right: attainable happiness is in the full awareness of being alive. Or, more recently, Joshua Heschel, who said that just to live is holy, just to be a blessing.

10 responses

  1. First of all, let it be said that I agree with you completely. I do exactly the same.

    But a couple of months ago, Daniel Gilbert (whose book I much admired) wrote an article in a newspaper over here on just the same lines and received a very hostile response. One commenter stuck in my mind: he said he’d recently lost his job, was going to lose his house, had broken up with his wife, was suffering in his relationship to his children and had never before experienced such levels of stress. No, uncertainty was NOT his problem.

    And so I thought about it some more, and wondered whether what really bugs us is the mistrust, or sense of fragility surrounding contentment or peacefulness in the current moment. Is contentment too precious? Are we fixated in some way on the negative? Anyway, it was a good reminder to me that uncertainty is not as bad as the actuality of misfortune, and that it was something I should bear in mind!

    1. Litlove, those are good questions. I think that one of Gilbert’s points is that our imaginations do go to the negative and the same negative possibilities all the time, whereas there may be many more outcomes that we don’t even consider. And that even some of the negative ones may not be as bad when we go through them as when we imagine it.

      Contentment does feel fragile. We know it can change in an instant and that creates anxiety, doesn’t it? And yet the situation may be more robust than our worries would indicate.

      I’ve been self-employed & making a living for 20 years or so, about half that time as a writer. All of that time, I’ve worried about whether I would continue to. It’s kind of funny really. Because when I look back, it looks robust. After all…20 years so far! But it felt fragile.

      Sometimes life sucks. It sounds like commenters who were in rotten situations got pretty pissed at Gilbert. Of course uncertainty isn’t always the problem, and Gilbert doesn’t say it is. He’s looking at situations where basic needs are met but people feel bad because they are worried and anxious.

  2. very provocative post, Lilian. As a natural-born worrier about all things fragile and uncertain, I need to pay more attention to the actual.

    1. Beth, and the actual may be more robust than it seems.

  3. Interesting post. I know that I worry a lot about what might happen and that this worry is partly fueled by bad things that have happened in the past. As much as I make a conscious effort not to get swamped in the negativity and to keep a balanced view of things, I often just have to tough it out since those negative stories go pretty deep.

  4. You are quite right, Lilian. It is uncertainty that makes us nervous. But I think it can be (though it isn’t always by any means) separate from unhappiness. I am a nervous worrier about all sorts of things. But I am mostly cheerful, even when things are not going well. I think it is not virtue, just nature. I was lucky to be born cheerful. Some of my children, alas, are not, and struggle with depression. That makes me sad, but I still go on with my cheerful life. And that makes me a little guilty, and round and round. And if I sat to myself, where does it all end? The answer is — Let’s not go there.

  5. I agree with what everyone’s said here, including in the post itself, Lilian! And I especially agree with the Buddhist idea that there is attainable happiness in the full awareness of being alive. That’s really just about the closest thing to my personal philosophy I’ve ever seen, and it’s so unbelievably succinct! Yep. Taking time to just think, ‘Wow, this is life, and I am alive,’ is guaranteed to bring a feeling I at least recognise as happiness – and it’s only when I neglect that ritual within myself that things start to fall down. It seems to work in tandem with reducing anxiety about uncertainty because it brings you into the present moment, away from both actual upsets of the past and possible upsets waiting up ahead.

  6. I hate the unknown. I find myself just avoiding it so I don’t get stressed about it. It doesn’t help to be stressed. I loved your lasts sentence. I focus on that. And I’m happy.

  7. Very informative posts and stories here. Much appreciated!

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