07/22/2013 04:02 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

8 Reasons Not to Worry


Everyone wants to worry less. Few of us manage it. Here are eight reasons not to worry, together with ways to stop worrying that can really work.

First, however, let me be clear about my definition of worry. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines worry as "give way to anxiety, let the mind dwell on troubles, fret." That's what I mean by worry. It does not include thinking about what could go wrong, in order to anticipate or deal with it, which is a highly useful thing to do.

The 80/20 reasons not to worry

1. The 80/20 principle says that a few (typically less than 20 percent) of causes or actions lead to most (more than 80 percent) of results. The principle is not a theory, but an observation that doesn't always work, but usually does. And it nearly always applies to worries.

Most things that we do are insignificant in terms of results, and most worries are inconsequential. Do you sometimes find yourself worrying that you will be slightly late for a meeting, that the dog may have fleas, that you may be embarrassed by not knowing something or by being wrong, that somebody may not like you, that the car may break down, that you may have to pay a bit more for something you want to buy, or that you may lose your tennis match? Relax! None of these things really matter - you can deal with all of them. So whenever you have a worry, ask yourself if it is a really big thing to worry about. If it isn't one of the very few big worries, dismiss it out of hand. If it is, consider the following arguments:

2. One reason the 80/20 principle works is that our energy is often divided into things with positive outcomes and those with negative outcomes. In business, if you properly account for all the revenues from customers and all the costs associated with serving them, it is nearly always true that 80-plus percent of profits come from fewer than 20 percent of customers. One of the reasons this work so reliably is that some customers are actually loss-making - making it 'easier' for few customers to corner most of the profits.

It is the same with our personal lives. Many of the things we do absorb energy but are worse than useless. Worry is a prime example. Worry is never useful. When we find ourselves worrying, we should either act and not worry, or decide not to act and not worry. If we can act to avoid something bad, or reduce its chances of happening, then we should act and not worry. On the other hand, if we can't control or influence what will happen, then worrying will cause us distress but not help us - we should not act and not worry.

This is a logical way of escaping worry. Puff - see the worries disappear! See if this works for you. It may not, however, because although it's true and irrefutable, it's a purely logical argument. Sometimes our emotions rule our reason. So we need to find some other reasons not to worry and antidotes to it.

The psychological reasons not to worry

3. When we are relaxed, happy, and comfortable in our own skins, we are unlikely to worry. It is at times of self-doubt or unhappiness that we are most likely to fret. We all experience mood swings, and when we are in a 'down' mood, worries should be dismissed or consideration of them deferred, and left for a time when we are in a more positive mood. When we are anxious, every possible bad thing that might happen becomes ten feet tall. If we just recognize this, and tell ourselves, "I have no sense of perspective at this time, so worrying will be neurotic rather than leading to helpful action", then we can move on.

4. More fundamentally, there are many psychological explanations for our feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, guilt, and lack of self-worth. The explanation that I find most convincing is the school of Transactional Analysis, most famous because of two excellent books - Games People Play, by Eric Berne, and I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas Harris. (I think everyone should read the latter, or its sequel, Staying OK, by Amy and Thomas Harris.) Boiled down, the theory says infants intuit an "I'm not OK - You're OK" position by age 2. As Amy Harris writes, the little person "is clumsy, uncoordinated, without words to express his feelings, and totally dependent on big people." Powerlessness leaves the little person "with the on-again-off-again experience of great glee and the sudden cessation of what felt so good. One way to figure this out was to make a decision about it: "You are in charge; I am not. You are OK - I am not." Much of life can be spent trying to get the approval of "parents" and our own internalized conscience. Many over-achievers "go through life measuring up, desperate for approval" - above all, from themselves. But however well they do, it is not enough.

With this mindset, there are always manifold things to worry about. The answer is to realize that we are the subject to obsolete 'recordings'; to relax; to escape the tyranny of the past and our own strivings; and to live in the present, enjoying what it offers free from self-destructive emotions.

5. Worry is an emotional condition. It is not rational. But emotions, besides being a frequent cause of distress, are also the root of joy, creativity, commitment, and caring. Psychology helps us to understand our dual nature, partly Dr Spock of Star Trek, and partly a bundle of volatile chemicals trying to escape from our lumbering robot. Emotions should not be repressed, nor should they be automatically indulged. Reason and emotion can speak to each other - what I call "having a cup of tea with our emotions". We let them have their say, and then we respond with our intelligence. We do what we can to remove the source of worry, and then we stop worrying.

6. Worries abound when our life is complex and stressful, when we feel we are not in control, when we feel at the mercy of events or other people. We can reduce worry by taking a few decisions that simplify our lives and leave us free to do what we enjoy and think is important and useful. As Amy Harris deliciously puts it, "if a woman decides to enter a convent, she may no longer feel the need to keep up with the latest fashion in Vogue. Simplicity has been achieved in at least one area of life." Energy comes from limiting choices, from making commitments. Ballet master George Balanchine once said "I've got more energy than when I was younger because I know exactly what I want to do." I bet he also worried less. Deciding exactly what you want to do will reduce your worries too.

The Spiritual Reasons Not to Worry

7. I blogged a few weeks ago about the value of accepting dependence on "the universe". If we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves, and joyfully accept the creative spark that can come to us when we are receptive, we can attain peace. Paradoxically, by accepting dependence we can also become more ourselves, more powerful, more in tune with everything constructive in the world. One of the biggest benefits of this attitude is that it removes worry. We are responsible for our actions, but we are not - and cannot be - responsible for what happens to us. We have to trust that events will unfold in a way that is good for us and for other people. Of course, this is not an intellectually defensible position - it is not logical. It is faith. Faith may waver - as apparently it did when Christ was crucified. But faith removes worry, because we place ourselves in more powerful hands.

8. Where, then, does this place those people who have no faith in God or the universe? If, for example, you were like the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who believes militantly that there is no God and that nature is blind and supremely indifferent to our fate, are you therefore doomed to worry? Even here, for atheists, I think there is still an answer, and it is one that I believe Richard Dawkins himself has adopted, perhaps without realizing that it has a spiritual character. There is within all of us, whether believers or unbelievers, an internal light that seeks to make sense of life, even if intellectually we think there is no sense in life and the universe. (There is also, within us all, an internal darkness that seeks to destroy and confound.) Life becomes meaningful - even if we believe there is no external meaning - when we switch on the light and switch off, as far we can, the darkness within. Does Richard Dawkins live in the light? I believe that he does, because he is strongly motivated to discover and explain the nature of life - where we came from and the nature of evolution - and has a passionate desire to share his perspective and convince the rest of us to share it. He is doing what he thinks is right, and, in doing it, he finds meaning in a world he believes is meaningless. He is creating his own light in the darkness. He is fighting for what he believes in. And I very much doubt that he is a man given over to fretting about his life.

Dawkins would not accept this, but I think that he is creating his own light and linking up to like-minded light in the universe. He is advancing knowledge, he is a scientist, and science is part of the quest for truth and beauty. And ultimately, if we do what we think is right, and use our talents to advance it - and if what we do has positive rather than negative consequences for other people and the planet - then we are part of the force for good in the universe. Whether we believe that there is such a force or not, we are helping to create it. When we give free rein to what is best in ourselves, what defines our uniqueness, we can do no other.

That's why I believe that Dawkins has a spiritual mission and why he is fulfilled. In this very broad definition of what is spiritual, there is hope and joy for anyone who is serious about life, even someone who believes it has no purpose. This broad church, which encompasses agnostics and atheists as much as believers, has little room for worry, and a great deal of room for constructive action. The existence of the quest for truth and beauty, and its ability to do good, is for me the most convincing reason to believe that life has meaning.