This article was originally published by the Financial Times on 27th December 2019.
Fretting too much is no fun but there’s an upside to feeling anxious
As a new decade is about to begin, I find myself worrying about a lot of things. For a start, there are my year-11 economics students, who sit their GCSEs this summer. I have only five months left to disabuse them of the idea that the current account deficit is the same as the budget deficit.
I am also fretting about my teeth, in particular about the now-absent UR7 and whether I should fork out £3,000 on another implant. I worry about climate change and the inconsistencies in my position. I’ve ditched the Nespresso machine and eat almost no meat — but I still light fires in my wood burner. I worry about my four children constantly.
I worry about Brexit and the character of the freshly endorsed prime minister. And about the beggars outside Sainsbury’s and whether to give money to them. The leaking flat roof at the side of my house is a growing concern, especially now that the water runs down the wall into a power socket. I worry about having too much to do and whether I will get enough sleep to enable me to function. I am worried about the 200 Now Teachers who I have encouraged to take on this noble yet onerous profession. And I am worried about the tulip bulbs I’ve planted in my garden. I fear the pink and the yellow may clash horribly.
This is a lot of worry for a person to carry. Yet the one thing that does not trouble me is the possibility that I worry too much. Worrying is meant to be a useless emotion. Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and the Dalai Lama don’t have a good word to say about it between them. The Bible also had a down on it. “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” asked Matthew.
Since the Apostle’s day, medical research has answered this question: being a moderate worrier can extend life by making you less likely to throw your cancer screening letters in the bin. Other research shows that clever people worry more because they are more imaginative and more alive to all the things that could go wrong.
Without worry, life would turn into a flat sea of complacency. My only experience of being entirely worry-free was when I took a Valium tablet. While a worry holiday was fine for a few hours, I would hate to live like that.
My aim for 2020 is not to worry less, but to worry smarter.
The popular view of worry is that it is OK so long as it is about something you can change. My worry about my students is useful as it makes me think hard about what and how I teach them, how to get them to revise properly and how better to administer the cocktail of stick and carrot.
Worrying about my roof and about climate change is also useful — though the problem here is that my concern is too feeble. If I were more worried about the roof, I would have pulled my finger out and found a roofer. If I were more worried about climate change, I would have got rid of the wood burner.
Worry is also good if it helps you solve problems. By worrying away at the issue, I have decided that it is better to give to beggars. The best argument against giving is that it perpetuates the problem — but if this were true, the cashless society would have seen a reduction in beggars rather than the reverse. Economics tells me that the marginal utility of a quid or two is much greater to them than to me, so in 2020 I will stop worrying, go to the cash machine and give.
But what about the worries that are outside my control? On election night I had already cast my useless vote for a party that did so poorly that even its leader didn’t get re-elected, and then slept fitfully til morning, my stomach tight with anxiety. This was pointless, but it was also proper. We live in a democracy, which means I owe it to the country not only to vote but to care. That means I will worry, at least occasionally.
Far more so, I owe it to my children to fret impotently about them most of the time. When my oldest daughter was a baby and needed a minor operation, I rang my mum, who pointed out — unhelpfully but accurately — that I would worry as much about my children when they were adults as when they were infants, only there would no longer be much I could do to help them. To love them is to worry about them.
Work deserves our worry too. A job that you don’t worry about is not worth doing. But here some sorts of worry are better than others. In my new job, I worry about my students, individually and collectively. In my old days as a columnist, I worried about how many hits there were on my columns, how many comments and shares. Even as I write this, I have the familiar dread that a reader will write: “That’s two minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”
This is pointless, painful and counter-productive, as is most worrying about yourself. My worrying that I’m too stressed or sleepless make me more so. These are the worst of my worries, and I resolve to give them up.
By contrast, my best, healthiest worry is about the tulips. I can’t change the colour scheme as they are already planted and it doesn’t matter a jot anyway. But that’s the beauty of it.
The oddest thing about my worrying is that I seem to have a fixed capacity for it. If I don’t have anything big to worry about, I worry about little things. The very best way to give me a break from worrying about my teeth falling out or being unable to sleep is to lie back and think of clashing yellow and pink tulips.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach, an organisation that helps experienced professionals to retrain as teachers
"My aim for 2020 is not to worry less, but to worry smarter."