I recently received a cartoon from a friend that showed a psychiatrist having a session with her patient. She says, "You worry too much ... It doesn't do any good." And the patient answers, "It does for me ... 95 percent of the things I worry about never happen!"
Several years ago, I saw a survey that said 40 percent of the things we worry about never happen, 30 percent are in the past and can't be helped, 12 percent concern the affairs of others that aren't our business, 10 percent are about sickness -- either real or imagined -- and 8 percent are worth worrying about. I would submit that even the 8 percent aren't really worth the energy of worry.
I wrote a column about the Second 10 Commandments in 2009 and guess what No. 1 was: "Thou shall not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities." You can't saw sawdust. A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work. People get so busy worrying about yesterday or tomorrow, they forget about today. And today is what you have to work with.
Robert Leahy, author of "The Worry Cure," says people worry for a variety of reasons, but one big reason is that worriers are intolerant of uncertainty. Leahy says worriers believe that they are being responsible by worrying because they believe they are preparing to avoid something bad. They think that by worrying they are taking control of their lives. But in fact, the reverse is true. Too much worrying causes people to lose control, and only builds their anxiety.
Worriers believe that they need to know what the outcome will be -- or there could be some kind of catastrophe awaiting them. Leahy says that worriers almost always overestimate the negative outcome.
At the same time, they underestimate their ability to handle what does happen. He further reminds us that worriers often forget that their past worries have mostly turned out to be futile.
I can attest to that finding. Instead of worrying about bad outcomes, I have adopted a different strategy. When I am faced with a big business decision or challenge, I ask my team to think about two things: What are we trying to accomplish, and what is the worst thing that can happen? We plan for the best, but we also prepare for the worst. That way, we avoid most surprises by anticipating disappointment.
Perhaps we would be wise to take some advice from folks who have been around long enough to have mountains of problems to worry about -- and yet, their longevity is credited largely to the right attitude.
Researchers at the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine questioned 243 people aged 100 and older. They found that centenarians tend to share certain personality traits, in addition to other factors, like genetics. In general, those traits included:
-- Positive-minded about other people
-- Full of laughter
-- Open with their emotions
-- Conscientious and disciplined
-- Unlikely to obsess about anxieties or guilt
The scientists did point out that these characteristics don't necessarily represent the reason for the long life spans. But they did notice that in many cases the personality traits they observed weren't necessarily lifelong tendencies, but behaviors their subjects learned as they grew older.
Focusing on the positives and not worrying about the negatives may have a favorable impact on overall life expectancy. So maybe it is never too late to adjust your thinking. And please, don't worry if that change doesn't happen overnight. Old habits die hard.
The true futility of worrying about things reminds me of the story about Herbie, who worries all the time. He worries so much he can't sleep. He paces in the bedroom all night. His wife wakes up and asks him what's on his mind.
"I can't pay the rent," he says.
She says, "We'll talk about it tomorrow. Go back to sleep."
He tries to go back to sleep, but he just keeps tossing and turning and soon he's up pacing again.
Suddenly his wife picks up the phone and dials the landlord. "Hello," she says. "Herbie can't pay the rent this month." And she hangs up.
Herbie says, "What did you do that for?"
"Let them worry all night about the rent," she says.
Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday.
Mackay's Moral: Worrying casts a dark shadow that blocks any glimmer of hope.