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I’ve spent the better part of my adulthood being anxious.
In general, if I’m thinking, I’m worrying. And so I grab eagerly onto any advice for calming down: Breathe deeply. Meditate. Put things in perspective.
But perhaps the best solution to my anxiety that I’ve yet to come across wasn’t intended to be a “solution” at all.
Instead, it was a series of findings from a yet-unpublished study that I learned about at the Psychological Science convention, which took place in Chicago in May.
One of the psychologists who presented at the convention was Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University who studies, among other topics, how people make meaning out of their lives.
A few years ago, Baumeister and his colleagues conducted research that found meaning and happiness, while related, are two separate things. The experiences that lead to happiness don’t necessarily lead to feeling like your life is meaningful.
More recently, Baumeister set out to extend these findings. He and another set of colleagues recruited a group of participants to receive a series of text messages throughout the day, prompting them to write down whether they were currently thinking about the distant or immediate past, the present, or the distant or immediate future. Participants also recorded how happy and anxious they felt and how meaningful their current thoughts were.
When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that people were happiest when they were thinking about the present, and least happy when they were thinking about the future or the past.
As for meaning, people experienced the least meaning when they were thinking about the present, the second-least when they were thinking about the past, and the most meaning when they were thinking about the future.
And as for anxiety? People were least anxious when they were thinking about the present, the second-least anxious when they were thinking about the past, and the most anxious when they were thinking about the future.
Those findings just blew me away, and here’s why: Thoughts that can make you anxious may also allow you to experience meaning.
That does not mean that anxiety itself is a source of meaning. I caught up with Baumeister after the presentation and he told me:
It’s not that anxiety creates meaning, but I think being involved in a lot of challenging, interesting things that bring meaning to your life also raises the possibility of things going wrong. So in other words, anxiety and worry and trouble and things like that.
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I knew exactly what he meant. Job interviews, first dates, working on a tough article, visiting apartments before an upcoming move – all of it makes my anxiety skyrocket.
But if I got rid of all these anxiety-provoking experiences, would my life be as meaningful? Probably not.
Here’s Baumeister again:
The happy life is not stressing out, and not working on a lot of things, but it’s without the challenges and the dangers. You don’t have the downside, but you also then don’t have the highly meaningful rewards from it.
The findings reminded me of something I heard health psychologist Kelly McGonigal say last year at the 99U Conference: Feeling stressed is a sign that your life is meaningful. If you’re all amped up, it’s likely because you’re wholly invested in something that you really want and care about.
The takeaway, for me at least, is that anxiety isn’t necessarily something to fight and avoid at all costs. Of course, you don’t want to be stressed and nervous all the time – and if you are, it might be wise to seek the help of a professional.
Baumeister also had some ideas about what to do if you’re experiencing tremendous anxiety:
When you do have stress or things are difficult, getting focused on the present can be comforting. [Try thinking] that things are not as bad as they seem and you can stay right in the present instead of thinking about how all the bad things could get worse and create disasters in the future. That’s what really makes it awful.
In general though, if you can think of every challenging experience as something that makes your life richer, and fuller, you might at least have less “meta-anxiety” – my made-up term for negative feelings about being anxious in the first place.
This won’t be easy for me to do, since my natural impulse is to fight my nerves tooth and nail until they disappear (or not). But I’m going to try to shift my mindset, reminding myself that anxiety is an inevitable part of life – at least the kind that I want to live.