I worry a lot. If I say this to people who know me, they are often surprised. “Aren’t you an expert in positive psychology? I thought you were always happy.” And yes, on some level, I do espouse positivity and try to embrace it in my life. But I do worry. A lot. I always have. And I guess I always will.
We all have our demons. Even those who study positive psychology. It is these demons, in fact, that bring many people to positive psychology. When in darkness, we turn to the light. We want to learn how to turn our anxieties into happiness.
But my studies in psychology did not teach me how to eliminate worry from my life. If anything, I learned to come to terms with it, maybe even to appreciate it. I never thought of myself as a pessimist, until I studied optimism. I have gained self-awareness, and today I can wear my pessimism badge without feeling any shame.
What does this look like in real life? Basically, I always imagine the worst thing that can happen in just about any situation. This can lead to wrestling with existential life questions. What if I lose my job? What if something happens to me or my loved ones? What if an apocalypse turns the world into a dystopian zombie wasteland? (I’m not joking, I really think about this.)
I can also bring my pessimism to more mundane day-to-day matters. I worry that my presentation at work might bomb. I worry about getting parking tickets. I worry that my kids will become addicted to video games. The list goes on and on.
But I’ve come to realize that this worry has been a positive driving force in my life. It is not despite my anxiety, but because of it, that I have worked hard to create a successful career, to have a happy and loving family around me, and to have invested conservatively to prepare for our future. I don’t like to worry. It is not fun. It is not enjoyable. But worry gets the job done. Nothing can motivate you to create a great life than worrying incessantly about your deepest fears.
But not all worry is good. We need to ask ourselves, are we worrying about things that are important? Is my anxiety making me more productive or less productive? Am I worrying about worrying? In Buddhism, this is known as “the second arrow.” The first arrow is the problems in life that we will have to deal with. The second arrow is the unnecessary suffering that we experience while dwelling on them.
Here are some techniques that I have learned in psychology to make my worry productive:
This is a technique for goal accomplishment that involves flipping back and forth between two thinking patterns.
In one, you clearly visualize the future goal you want to create. In the other, you imagine the worst things that can happen to prevent you from reaching the goal. The first vision keeps you motivated and energized to keep moving forward, and the second more pessimistic vision helps you be prepared for the inevitable hiccups along the way.
Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher who studies positive emotions, recommends striving for a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. In other words, a healthy life doesn’t come from eliminating stress and anxiety completely. It comes from striking a balance between positive and negative experiences. So, worry away! Just make sure that you are also experiencing joy, love and gratitude along with your worry.
Embrace Your Dark Side
Psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener wrote a book called The Upside of your Dark Side. They argue that all negative emotions have a purpose including fear, anger, shame, sadness and anxiety. The goal for them is not about eliminating the negative from life, but about “becoming whole” and understanding how the breadth of our emotional experience in life is what makes us human and helps us live interesting lives.
I’m just going to keep on worrying because I think it has helped me live a pretty good life so far. Let’s not worry about worrying.
JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.