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It’s OK to Worry

November 3, 2014 By:
Tal Ben-Shahar
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Tal Ben-Shahar

It seems like the most widespread emotion today is worry. People are concerned about the economy, gun violence, political intransigence and climate change — to name just a few things on their minds.

What can you do if you’re worried about one of the above global concerns? Or what if your concern is over something personal, unique, your own? What you should do is — worry!

You should simply accept the fact that you’re concerned, anxious, afraid, unhappy. These emotions are natural, part of being human. In fact, the only people who don’t experience these normal unpleasant feelings are psychopaths. And the dead. Experiencing these emotions, at times, is actually a good sign — a sign that we are most likely not psychopathic, and most certainly alive.

Painful emotions are an inevitable part of being human, and therefore rejecting them is ultimately rejecting part of our humanity. To lead a full and fulfilling life — a happy life — we need to allow ourselves to experience the full range of emotions. In other words, we need to give ourselves the permission to be human.

Paradoxically, it is when we fight an unpleasant emotion — whether worry or envy or anger —that we strengthen and fuel it. A painful emotion is like the insecure lover who wants you more and clings when you reject him, and leaves you when you accept and welcome him. Give yourself permission to experience your anxiety, and the anxiety is more likely to let you go.

After allowing yourself to experience emotion without fighting it, then you can actively choose the most appropriate course of action. You may decide to dispute your negative thinking and recognize the irrationality of the idea that the world is actually coming to an end. You may decide to write an article to your local newspaper or a letter to your representative in Congress urging bipartisan action to avert the fiscal cliff. Or you may go to the gym and work out vigorously in order to alleviate some of the concern you feel. Whatever you do, you’ll do it better if you first acknowledge, accept and even welcome any and all emotions.

At every moment in your life, you face choices whose cumulative effect on you are just as great, if not greater, than the effect of big individual decisions like whether to commit to a certain relationship, what major to declare in college or whether to accept a job offer in another city. You can choose to sit up straight or be stooped; say a warm word to your partner or give her a sour look; appreciate your health, your friend, your lunch — or take them all for granted. Individually these choices may not seem important, but together they are the very bricks that make up the road you create for yourself.

Here are suggestions from my book, Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness, that may make all the difference in how you experience your daily life:

• Seize the moment: Taking three minutes to listen to your favorite song even though your inbox is overflowing, spending an hour with your best friend despite the looming deadline at work, or going to the movies with friends — these may be the best things you can do for yourself and others.

• Perceive difficulty as a challenge: If you assess a situation as threatening, you are likely to experience stress. If you assess the same situation as challenging, your emotional reaction is more likely to be one of excitement. Your words do not merely describe your reality, they create your reality.

• Be afraid and go ahead anyway: All of us face fear or insecurity when we try something new, or work at mastering a skill. Remember that your greatest heroes were sometimes afraid — only they did not allow this feeling to get in their way. Courage is not about not having fear; courage is having fear and going ahead anyway.

• Be hopeful and optimistic: Pessimists dismiss optimism as ungrounded and unrealistic. But if optimism and hope are grounded in reality, they can improve the quality of your relationships, bring about success at work, help you overcome adversity and provide an important foundation for making your dreams come true.

• Move: A moderate amount of physical exercise on a regular basis — as little as 30 minutes three times a week — has the same effect in combating depression and anxiety as does the most powerful psychiatric medication. Being active increases overall psychological well-being, enhances concentration and creativity, and significantly reduces the likelihood of dementia and cognitive impairment later in life. To increase the likelihood of enjoying physical and mental health, we need to move it.

• Appreciate your family and friends: Don’t forget to spend time with people you care about and who care about you. Relationships are the No. 1 generator of happiness; in the words of British philosopher Francis Bacon, they “double joy and cut grief in half.”

• Take your dreams seriously: Voices around you abound, urging you to drop your dreams and become realistic. Even if you fail to fulfill a particular dream you once had, you’re likely to expand your horizon, reach new territories and turn other dreams into reality. Pursuing your dreams is what life is really all about.

Tal Ben-Shahar, the author of several books about happinesss, will be the keynote speaker at a daylong seminar on well-being on Nov. 9 in Center City. For tickets and information on the event, which benefits the Klein JCC, go to:

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