Uncertainty in life: a curse or a blessing in disguise?

Uncertainty in life: a curse or a blessing in disguise?
Yoshinori Mizutani
Image: HDR⎽nature, 2018

Many would agree that a feeling of uncertainty is one of the most exhausting and draining states to be in. A tangible future and a sense of control are like a glass of icy water on a hot summer’s day, and their absence – an absolute torture.

Research shows that a lack of stability at work has more negative impact on our mental health than being made redundant. In other words, uncertainty wears a person out more than any grievous or distressing news, which are known in advance.

So, how should one deal with unpredictability in the context of evolving circumstances, where long-term planning simply does not apply? And is it possible to find a state of equilibrium in this space of constant anxiety?

The psychology of unpredictability

Anxiety around an uncertain future has been our loyal companion long before the onset of today’s digital age. Back in the 4th century BC, ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that most people suffer from the fear of losing control over their future.

“But what is control?” – would have been the question he asked. A faint ripple on the water’s surface, a momentary scent of a fading blossom. In truth, full control is impossible, just like it is impossible to stop the sun, the moon or the wind from pursuing their course.

A couple of millennia later, we remain tortured by the same crippling sense of uncertainty. And there is nothing like a case study to support this. British psychologists observed two groups of participants, the first of which was told that there is a 50/50 chance that they might receive a mild electric shock if they press a button. The other group was informed that they would definitely get electrocuted by pressing the said button.

Full control is impossible, just like it is impossible to stop the sun, the moon or the wind from pursuing their course.

You might have guessed which group experienced more stress. Despite the 50/50 possibility of receiving an electric shock, those that were not exposed to it were left worrying about the mere possibility of potential exposure to an event that did not even take place. Their bodies developed an unfounded stress response due to an imaginary threat.

The psychology of unpredictability
Image: Yoshinori Mizutani

Uncertainty as part of life

According to the Stoics, uncertainty is something that should be embraced and accepted as part of our life. They saw ambivalence as something that drives all new pursuits in science, the arts and the world in general. Modern psychologists would agree that by accepting it as an a priori condition of human existence, we can capitalise on it and transform it into a source of creative energy.

According to author Nassim Taleb, who has dedicated years of his life to a career in risk management: “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.” A true finance industry guru, he recommends that everyone who desires change becomes that flame. Stability and routine do not guarantee success and prosperity in life. And by allowing a healthy dose of risk and spontaneity, we actually become more resilient in the face of the unknown.

Finding comfort in uncertainty

1/ Plan well

Our inability to anticipate the next event should not deter us from planning smart. In fact, there are no guarantees that things will go exactly as you expect. It is best to focus on scenarios that can serve a purpose, rather than ones that are rigidly correct. A calculated variability will give us a chance to feel confident and prepared next time life throws you curveballs.

Positivity and faith in the process are the best foundations here. Having said that, the fact that a desirable outcome might simply not be possible should also not be ignored. A negative outcome is necessary to best prepare us for avoiding it in the future. While it might be counterproductive to focus on these bad scenarios, an objective analysis of your risks will come in handy in any line of work.

For example, rather than worrying about a potential redundancy, channel your energy towards looking at alternative ways to make a living. When making plans, focus on the immediate future. The further ahead you leap in your planning, the murkier the waters get and, therefore, the more intimidating the distant future you try to grasp.

Finding comfort in uncertainty
Image: Yoshinori Mizutani

2/ Do not believe everything you think

Our thoughts and feelings are created by our mind. So, the reality we live in is not just the objective circumstances we are surrounded by, but also all the feels and filters of perception. Unfortunately, the human brain is programmed to exaggerate and paint the most extreme scenarios. This is a deeply seated evolutionary trait which goes back to our prehistoric ancestors, whose survival was based on assuming danger even where there was none to be found and there was little scope for new experiences.

Positive mindset is a mental muscle that should be exercised to help us nip those negative thoughts in the bud.

Our task is to learn to draw the line for where our objective reality ends and our imagination begins. This is the foundation of a positive mindset. “Focus on the good things” is a mental muscle that can be trained just like any other. It can and should be exercised to help us nip those negative thoughts in the bud.

It is not just that excessive anxiety hasn’t done anyone any good. By ruminating we emotionally invite those situations to take place. We end up grieving the things we have not even lost, reacting to events which have not yet taken place. While this might be an acceptable reaction to a well-orchestrated fictional plot in your favourite book, it is a whole other matter when it amplifies your own unfounded fear and sense of being threatened.

3/ Stay in the moment

It is not confidence that is the opposite of uncertainty but presence in this moment. Rather than focusing on something daunting or simply unknown in our future, we can instead concentrate on our breath and the physical sensations in our body.

Even when we lose control, we are always have our valuable attention to come back to. It is up to us what we direct it to: whether it is your endless chain of social media notifications, fantasies around your future or the things happening in your present. By returning to the here and now we reclaim our peace and install a healthy impartiality to external worries.

4/ Seek stability within yourself

The Stoics would have suggested to rely on the things you can control. As you might suspect, the only area of our life which we do have such control over is ourselves. We can control our thoughts, words, behaviour but never the lives of others and external circumstances. Romanian poet Paul Celan believed that all the most important decisions should be taken by ourselves.

This mindset is key to appreciating the wisdom of the ancient Indian rishis who believed that any certainty is negative. According to these ancient sages, a desire to organise our future makes life akin to an automatic mechanism. Only the unknown can make people turn on their intellect, creative abilities and intuition. Only ambivalence can lead to technological innovation and the creation of phenomenal art, transformational music and genius literature.

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