- We have more opportunities than any time in human history—why are we still miserable?
- You cannot outrun your mind or body's chemistry manifested as anxiety.
- Anxiety is a powerful physiological state not subject to conscious control.
- You must first learn to calm your physiology before you can fully enjoy your life.
Chronic mental and physical Illnesses are rampant amongst teenagers. A 2014 paper demonstrated an 830 percent increase in hospital admissions for pain in adolescents over a seven-year span. In the vast majority of patients, a cause of the symptoms could not be found. In the course of giving a talk at a high school a few years ago, I learned the more than 350 of the 1,500 students had a chronic medical problem that had to be monitored. Eating disorders are increasing, even amongst males. Teen suicide is a serious problem.1
More resources and opportunities are at our disposal today than at any point in human history. We live in a free society with unlimited opportunities. Yet much of the population is miserable. We wring our hands about the problem but are not coming up with real solutions. What is going on?
The root cause–anxiety as a threat response
Anxiety is a powerful physiological (how the body functions) response to real or perceived danger. Avoiding it is a driving force behind much of human behavior. All life has some form of a flight-or-fight” reaction. Humans have language and describe it with the word anxiety. It is automatic, powerful, hard-wired, not responsive to conscious control, and evolved to be incredibly unpleasant.
A common approach to quell anxiety is to experience, accomplish, achieve, and remain busy, in an attempt to outrun it. It is, however, impossible to avoid feeling your body’s chemistry.
Your conscious brain is formed by the nervous system interpreting your body’s internal sensations. As your nervous system remains fired up by anxiety, it creates and endless flow of unpleasant thoughts. The thoughts, in turn, inflame your brain.
One result is a stream of repetitive unpleasant thoughts (RUTs). You cannot escape your body or outrun your mind. Our modern era of opportunity has actually worsened this scenario. The human brain has not historically had to process so much information a day.
We humans now have too many choices. I will never forget, during my psychology course in medical school, that volunteers’ anxiety was equally high when given an equivalent choice between positive options and negative ones. Humans have trouble with choice, and we don’t like feeling anxious.
Trapped by success
We are encouraged to experience life to the fullest and achieve. We enteri organized sports at an early age, travel the world, and are given wonderful options for becoming creative. There is no limit as to what is possible.
That also the problem. You can achieve many things but you cannot outrun your mind. What is even more of a problem is accomplishing what you think should give you peace of mind and still feeling unhappy; where do you go next? Then you really feel trapped.
Even when your situation is idyllic, your brain searches for threats. After all, the first imperative of life is to survive; not to have a great time. Humans also have the problem of danger being created in our minds by cognitive distortions. The stories we create to feel better about ourselves are compilations of faulty perceptions programed in by our life experiences. We become who others and society thinks we ought to be.
As a result, many of us are driven by a self-critical voice, a cognitive distortion of “should" thinking. Perfectionism is a particularly insidious version of it, and we may drive ourselves unmercifully to attain remarkable heights. Since our ideal self is unattainable, we have set ourselves up for endless and progressive frustration.
A life-changing moment
Here is a letter from one of my administrative colleagues.
The frustration and joy of golf can easily lead to some strong emotions including anger. I know my brother and I struggled with that for a long time, until one day I realized what it is all about.
My brother was having a particularly difficult day on the course with my Dad some years ago and was just about ready to throw a fit. My Dad told him to stop playing. They both laid down on the green, looked up at the clouds on a beautiful day and took a moment to appreciate spending time together outside with nobody else around. “This is what it is all about.” My brother walked up back to his ball and asked my Dad, “So I don’t have to keep playing, I can just walk the rest of this hole and start back up on the next one if I want?” Right as my Dad was about to affirm his question, he whispered to my brother to turn around. Not five feet behind him stood a deer.
My dad and brother always describe this as one of their epiphany moments, and for me it illustrates that golf is just a game. While it can be challenging and frustrating, you can’t let that aspect of the game get the best of you and distract you from the joy and awe it can bring. I got thinking of just how toxic anger towards something or someone can be, and how powerful forgiveness can be. (this includes perfectionism—anger towards yourself). Best, George
Be all that you can be?
Defining myself by my accomplishments and “score” has been my entire life. These deeply etched-in behavioral patterns are not disappearing. Remaining aware of their presence and power allows me to separate from them. So, just be—and enjoy your day.
1. Delisle JR. Death with honors: Suicide among gifted adolescents. Jrn of Counseling and Development (1986); 64:558-60.
2. Burns, David. Feeling Good. Avon Books, 1999.