This Holiday Season, Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This holiday season, if you find yourself feeling stressed out, instead of reaching for a double shot of eggnog, try giving people in your life the benefit of the doubt. You may end up giving it to yourself, too!
12/07/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

A month ago, I rolled up behind a Corolla at a red light with a lot on my mind. It had been a long day of awful customer calls, and personal matters were weighing heavily on my subconscious. When the light turned green, and the idiotic driver sat motionless until it was yellow, too late for me to safely cross the intersection, they got the brunt of my frustration. Beyond agitated, I laid into the horn for 10 seconds while simultaneously offering two turtle doves and a verbal onslaught of obscenities that would shock Bob Sagat. So outrageous was my outburst that I noticed several passing pedestrians laughing out loud in disbelief at my overreaction. Embarrassingly, I caught up with the Corolla at the next light. Sheepishly gazing into the car, I noticed the passengers. Driving was a young girl, likely with a learner's permit, struggling to learn stick in hilly San Francisco. Accompanying her, an elderly woman, probably her grandma.

Disgusted with my behavior and wanting to prevent further slips, I spent serious time analyzing the situation. Why did I freak out, and what caused the explosion of emotion? After organizing my thoughts and sifting through many minor possibilities, I hypothesized it came down to two major things: My stress levels were high, and I didn't think to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Analyzing further, I began to wonder if there was a connection between the two. Could consistent failure to extend the BOTD to people be increasing my stress level? Conversely then, could consistently giving the BOTD actually reduce my stress level?

Researching stress, I learned that it is a difficult thing to objectively define, because stress is different for everybody. (For example, imagine a group of people being forced to speak in public -- some would find it exhilarating, and others would be terrified.) The ambiguous definition makes stress hard to measure from individual to individual. Much like pain, people have different thresholds of how much stress they can safely handle. However, it is agreed being "stressed out" is possible, and overexposure will alter behavior, cause health problems, and may eventually be fatal. So vicious is its rising death toll that the Science of Occupational Health dubbed stress the "black death of the 21st century."

Not wanting to die, I decided to attempt to reduce my stress level by testing my BOTD hypothesis through a self-experiment. For 30 days, I would try to give everybody that crossed my path the BOTD (no matter what) and would keep track of how I felt. Since there is no objective scale available, I used subjective measurements like "on a scale of 1 - 10, how hard are you gripping the steering wheel?" With 1 being "so lightly its dangerous" to 10 being "I'm going to f#$%ing kill it."

I deemed the experiment successful, as I was noticeably less stressed out when it was over. Thirty days of consistently extending my most empathetic self on to others certainly saved me from needless aggravation, and I felt like I was more in control of my emotions. I suppose I somewhat expected to feel these things, because developing healthier habits and accomplishing goals usually feels good, but the biggest benefit was one that surprised me. By altering my mindset to give the BOTD to others, it started to come so naturally I noticed I was also giving the BOTD to myself... which strangely ended up being the biggest stress reliever.

The, an organization dedicated to helping people overcome stress and anxiety, suggests that the root of most stress originates from some type of fear. It can be a larger fear, like the fear of death, or smaller fears, like the fear of failure or rejection. Reflecting on my own thought process, I realized what was actually causing a majority of my stress was a string of minor fears I had throughout my day to day. Fears of missing deadlines at work, inability to complete a project, etc. were all causing anxiety. Giving myself the BOTD in these situations (you'll hit the deadline, you can complete the project, etc.) eliminated the fearful thoughts, which in turn reduced my stress.

Cool, eh?

I realize you probably don't care about my stress level. I share these unprofessional findings in hopes that they spread and better the universe... and in hopes that if I cut you off on the 101, your first thought will be, "That guy can really control his Mazda and must be in a hurry," and not "I'm going to kill him at the next exit."

This holiday season, if you find yourself feeling stressed out, instead of reaching for a double shot of eggnog, try giving people in your life the benefit of the doubt. You may end up giving it to yourself, too!

For more by Zach Dean, click here.

For more on stress, click here.