What’s the worst that could happen?!

Seriously, this is a good question to ask yourself, and not in a flippant way. It will probably feel uncomfortable at first, but the discomfort is worth it. It can be good to seriously look at what is a reasonable worst case scenario. What are you actually worried about in this moment? Get clear and prepare mentally and emotionally for the possibility that might occur. What can you do about it? Take action. What can’t you do about it? Let go of those things.

Short bullet points for your consideration:

  • Try to focus on what you can do to make a positive impact on yourself and others.
  • Don’t dwell on bad things that have happened or could happen, unless there’s a way to learn from the past or prepare for a better future.
  • Identify specific things that you’re worried about so that you can take action on things or let go of them if there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • Instead of being vaguely fearful of negative future possibilities, try to imagine specifically what the future may be like. Even if things seem bad, if you can accept it or even embrace it, then you may be able to face the future more bravely. If you have no expectations or attachments to possible future outcomes, then it’s really had to be disappointed. If you’ve already accepted the worst, then anything better than that is something that you can be grateful for. Amor fati.
  • It could always be worse. If you were born in the 1890s, then you could have gone through two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and the Great Depression! Seriously! WTF?! Millions of people went through that. If they saw us now?! Clearly the current moment has a lot of negative features. It’s worse for some of us than others. I would never question that. But comparing May 2020 to May of 2019 is not helpful. Why not pick a more helpful comparison to make or none at all? Besides, the broader impact of COVID is going to be mostly due to decisions made by people in power and collective action, and not the disease itself. If people have issues with food, housing, or medical care, almost all of that is because of poor leadership, political inertia, or broken socio-economic systems, not because there is actually a lack of those things.

The long version if you like that sort of thing, with random musings generously included…..

As humans, we’re pretty irrational. We have a terrible ability to assess risk. We often don’t act in our own interest, or frankly in anyone’s best interest. Behavioral economics is basically the study of exactly that… how we do dumb stuff that makes no sense, is irrational, counter-intuitive, or counter-productive. This is obvious. Just look around. But, we often forget it and fail to see how we do things that don’t make sense, aren’t aligned with our goals or values, or actively hurt us. The fact that I’m aware of this fact, but still can’t see all of the cognitive errors that I’m constantly making really irks me. It should bother you, too! But maybe it also gives us a degree of freedom to forgive ourselves when we realize that we did something stupid.

I’ve found it very useful to learn about irrational behavior and cognitive biases that we all tend to engage in. If you have name and concept in your head for, say, confirmation bias or the sunk-cost fallacy, then it’s at least on your mental radar and you have the potential to recognize it. If you know about the sunk-cost fallacy, then you’re one step closer to seeing when your mind is caught up in it, and hopefully sometimes you can move past that and do something that makes more sense for you.

I’ve frequently experienced and observed two common and unhelpful thought patterns that frequently come up when things are uncertain and stressful.

  1. Being vaguely worried about something without specifically identifying the actual thing you’re worried about.
  2. Hoping without specific reason that things work out, that things aren’t really that bad, and that they’ll probably be fine.

On the first one is a black hole. You could potentially worry about anything endlessly. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we’re uncertain about something we care a lot about, it can often lead to anxiety. If you observe your mind going in circles without actually coming to any actionable conclusions, take note and see if you can step out of that mental hamster wheel.

In this moment, you could be very worried about the Coronavirus and the collateral socio-economic fallout. It’s easy to engage in a lot of speculative, unspecific worry about this. Our brains are hard-wired to be anxious. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is little downside to being worried about something harmless. There is potentially a lot of downside if you aren’t worried about something that’s actually harmful. So by default our brains love to worry; doing so may sometimes save you from some calamity. But it’s deceiving. You could keep doing laps in your head about how worried you are about getting sick, getting groceries, working from home, jobs, the economy, getting sick, getting groceries, my friend who’s out of work, getting sick… etc.

It could go on forever, and doing those circles feels like you’re doing something. Your brain feels like it’s helping you out. It thinks it’s protecting you from something. What that is nobody knows. Definitely not your brain. If it did, then it could settle down and come up with something real to do instead of going in circles….

You brain thinks that maybe on the 3rd or 30th lap around those worries, it might see something. You’ll have some realization, take action, and save your future self some harm. Realistically, most of the time this isn’t the case. You’re just worried without any recognizable benefit. Does it feel good to worry? No, of course not. It’s tempting and addictive. But, worry is almost like a lesser version of OCD washing your hands 5 times before eating. Yes, doing it once is helpful. Doing it repeatedly is not. Unless there’s a change in circumstance or new information available, continued worry makes no sense at all. But, we often do it.

Rather than get stuck in endless cycles of unspecific worry, it’s better to try to calm the mind and look slowly and deliberately at what it is that worries you. Are you concerned about losing your job? Are you concerned because you lost your job? Clearly, this is a serious moment. Are you worried about getting sick? About loved ones getting sick? Or dying? Losing your house or apartment because you can’t pay your mortgage or rent after losing your job or losing customers? It’s clearly really tough for a lot of people right now, but getting clear on the real risks is going to be helpful. It’s the first step towards taking action in the right direction.

This isn’t to say that the emotional experience of life isn’t important. It’s integral to our experience of life to have emotions. Without them, life would probably be pretty bland. But, it’s good to recognize that taking action can be empowering and can help to address the experience of emotions that we experience as negative.

Once you’re clear on what it is that you’re worried about, as yourself: Is there anything that I can do to reduce the chance that this negative outcome will happen? Or, is there anyway to limit the potential losses if it does happen? If there is anything to be done, try to identify a way to do it or get help in doing it. If there is really nothing that you can do to prevent or address an outcome that you regard as negative, then stop worrying about it. To provide an extreme example: It will not do you any good to stay up late at night worrying about an asteroid hitting the earth and destroying all life on the planet. It could happen. It’s unlikely. But the important thing is that there’s probably nothing that you or anyone else can do about it…

I’m not here to give you advice, but only share some of my thinking. You should do what works for you. Most of what I have to offer isn’t new stuff, it’s just a combination and evolution of a lot of ideas taken from my experience and interests in everything from behavioral economics to Existentialism to Taoism to cognitive science. But, if there’s just one or two useful insights or “aha” moments for one or two of you, my readers, then it’s totally worth it:

  • Are you worried about feeling isolated and depressed during COVID-19?
    • You could start weekly or daily meetups with friends to connect? Like an after work happy hour on Friday nights, or a Saturday brunch hangout on Zoom or Google Hangout or whatever platform you like.
    • You could start a blog or vlog and share your experience with others and get support from them.
    • Or you could spend time on a hobby you love and share that with people online… like cooking, playing music, painting, or watching movies, analyzing, and discussing them afterwards.
    • Or you could start a book club that meets weekly or bi-weekly for a few hours to discuss the book that week.
    • You could play chess, poker, or go online and chat with people to have a kind of interaction you enjoy.
    • You can exercise some every day. Take short walking breaks or do crunches between calls or intermittently while working on a project.
  • Are you worried about getting sick? Worried about dying? Are you worried about this for other people you care about?
    • Spoiler alert: you’re going to die, and so is everyone else that you know. The timing and order is unknown, but it’s going to happen. The quicker we can accept this and take it into account when deciding what to do in our lives, the better!
    • For yourself, wash your hands, wear a mask, keep hand sanitizer with you when you’re outside your place, try not to go out as much as possible until it’s safe to do so. If you do go out, try to do it when there are less people wherever you’re going. Exercise, take care of yourself. Regular exercise is fantastic for your immune system, as well as your brain and mood regulation.
    • If you do your part to stay healthy and minimize your risk of contracting the coronavirus, then there’s nothing more you can do, and there’s really no benefit to engaging in ongoing worry about it. Do your best and don’t worry about it beyond that.
    • If you’re worried about others, then reach out to them. Say “hi.” Check and see if they’re being safe. Probably they’ll be fine, but maybe not. At least you had plenty of advance warning and can take action now. It’s better than finding out that they randomly died in a car collision. It’s probably also better than a prolonged and painful bout of cancer. No matter what, it could always be worse.

I’m not trying to say what you should or shouldn’t do about anything. I’m just brainstorming some ideas to show how I sometimes think through these things.

One more comment about how it could always be worse. Our brains are hard-wired to compare. Comparison is one of our favorite activities and ways of making sense of the world. Much of our unhappiness comes from comparing our current experience or assessment of things to a different version of reality that we imagine in our heads… You could have a better job, a nicer apartment, less college debt, whatever… Right now, you could imagine a world where the novel coronavirus hadn’t spread around the world and hadn’t killed 1/4 million people. Compared to that “nicer” version of reality, this one sucks. Why do I have to be here? I wish it weren’t so. I hate it! Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I hope you get the idea.

Well, we don’t live in that world. We live in this one. So why would you hold onto something in your head that actively contributes to feelings of unhappiness? Sometimes things are lousy, but don’t make it worse by thinking about it in unhelpful ways. There’s a difference between the physical experience of something unpleasant and the mental suffering involved with actively fearing it before it happens, focusing only on the discomfort when it’s happening, and painfully remembering the painful thing after it has passed.

If COVID had started spreading 2 months earlier, then maybe Kobe Bryant would still be alive. If it had happened 20 years ago, then maybe the World Trade Center would still be standing, the US wouldn’t have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ISIS wouldn’t exist. Those things didn’t happen, and it’s not useful to wish for things in the past to be different than they are. But, we don’t know what else might be happening right not if COVID hadn’t come. We also don’t know what will happen in the future. There are definitely challenges right now, but there’s a lot of opportunity for positive changes to be facilitated because of this crisis.

Likewise, just hoping that things get better or thinking that they might is not helpful. Maybe they will, but it’s foolish to listen to people or thinking that says “it’ll magically go away, like a miracle.” I find it useful to imagine a reasonable worst case scenario and see if there’s anything I can do about it. But whether or not you can do much about it, if you set your expectations pretty low, then you aren’t surprised when things go bad. If you have no expectations, then you can’t be disappointed. And, if you expect things to be rough, then you can be pleasantly surprised when things are’t all that bad. Actually, our expectations of good or bad events are usually much more extreme than our actual experience of them.

“A Harvard University team has done dozens of experiments demonstrating that when we imagine events in the future, we expect the worst of bad events and the best of good events. In reality, bad events don’t make us feel quite so awful and good events don’t make us feel quite so great.”

As soon as there was talk of shutdowns in Wuhan, then Italy and Spain, and cases of COVID were showing up in the US, it became clear that we were probably going to see some restrictions of travel and movement in the US. Eventually, when public gatherings were being cancelled, I started to think, “We’re probably going to see a shutdown. Cases are under-reported because of a lack of testing. This will probably go at least through the summer, and linger on at least through 2021 in some form.” As soon as the Bay Area shut down in California, I started running on the assumption that we’d be in semi-lockdown until at least July 4th. So far, I’ve not been disappointed or worried about the Shelter-In-Place orders that keep getting extended. As of now, I’ve still got at least 2 months to go before I even thought it was possible to go back to any kind of normal activities.

To give an example, here’s a part of the way in which my brain works. I like numbers, and here’s some very rough calculations I did early this year:

As soon as COVID started showing up with a few hundred cases in the US, a couple of weeks before momentum picked up, I started thinking mathematically. I figured if there was a 1-2% fatality rate, and we totally mismanaged the situation, then eventually everyone would get it. Most people would be fine, many people would have a really rough time but eventually get better, and about 3-6m people would die in the US. That’s an extreme case, but theoretically possible based on information in February. But, based on some data that some people are asymptomatic and spread the disease without ever getting symptoms, then maybe the mortality rate is much lower, but it is actually more likely that the disease spreads widely before we can really do enough to limit it’s spread. In this scenario, maybe everyone gets it, but maybe only 1-2m people die. Still terrible, but probably before that happens, people would do something about it to limit the spread, hopefully taking the death toll down below 1m even if the situation was totally mismanaged with terrible leadership, which seems likely given the vacuum of intelligence, leadership, and management skills at the moment… Anyway, that’s pretty pessimistic, but not out of the question. Probably before things would get that bad, people would start changing behaviors even if leadership wasn’t telling them to do so. Hopefully at the very least, people could limit the spread and harm to life to 500k or less.

Not to be morbid, but if you look at a normal year…

Number of deaths for leading causes of death:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

Just some perspective.

And, as much as we think that “normal” life may be something we miss or hope for again soon, it’s good to remember that there’s no such thing as “normal life,” there’s just life. Every experience we have is a part of it. We can choose to regret everything, or nothing. We can choose to be victims, or live proactively and creatively.