We live in times when it seems like a duty to be worried. Two wars, global warming, an out of control oil spill. More than anytime I can remember, people are uniformly glum about the future prospects of the planet. If you aren’t worrying, you feel that somehow you aren’t doing your part.
Worry is nothing to be glib about. In some situations it is inescapable. In a crisis when you are uncertain about the future, the mind begins to obsess as a way to gain a sense of control over events that are uncontrollable. But revolving a host of worst case scenarios as you lie awake at night isn’t really a solution. May I give some good reasons for not worrying?
Worry is a form of pain, and pain doesn’t make people change.
Worry is chronic anxiety, one of the least productive of all emotions.
Worry is like mental smog. It keeps you from seeing clearly.
People who create real change aren’t worriers. They are the exact opposite.
If you take a step back, you can see that worrying is a form of self-inflicted pain. For many people the pain is a mild mental martyrdom — they feel that to worry makes you a better person than if you don’t worry. It’s true that the kind of person who never worries about others may be selfish, callous, and indifferent. But you aren’t making up for such people by putting yourself in pain.
Other worriers believe that being anxious will force them to change, but psychologists know that pain isn’t a good motivator. If it were, the millions who worry about their weight would all be slim. When somebody punishes you, do you feel motivated to change? No, and worry, being a form of self-punishment, is just as useless. If anything, it becomes a habit that clings stubbornly to the mind and refuses to change.
You can’t think clearly while you are worrying. Worry takes up energy and occupies the space where productive thoughts could enter. Like smog, it limits visibility. The reason for this is both psychological and biological. Psychologically, fear is convincing because it is such a powerful emotion, yet what it wants to convince you of — that everything is bad, hopeless, and doomed — is rarely correct. Biologically, worry activates stress hormones that throw the brain into a state of low-level arousal to fight or flee. This arousal is temporary, and is soon followed by exhaustion and apathy. So when you worry, your brain isn’t in the best shape to consider what to do.
Finally, the kind of people who lead the way to real solutions aren’t worriers. They have looked at a bad situation, felt the pain, and moved on to creative answers. Right now a lab somewhere is developing algae and bacteria that will consume greenhouse gases and metabolize the oil that dirties the surface of every ocean. Someone else is working around the clock to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Others have taken on the role of job creators, micro financiers in the developing world, and green activists.
Their motivation is something better than worry. It can be pure love of the planet, which all of us share. It might also be what’s called intrinsic motivation, which is the desire to master a field and to do as good a job as possible. They may have a specific passion or suddenly see a solution that no one else has. Free market incentives also enter the mix. Far, far down on the list is worry. Such people wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel anxious about the state of things, yet they have taken steps to wipe out their anxiety in a productive way.
So the message isn’t a callous “What, me worry?” It’s more like, “I know what it’s like to worry, but I’ve moved on.” Let anxiety be your past. Let a renewal of love for this beautiful world be your guide in the future.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle