Did you ever spend more time worrying about something than the actual time spent doing the thing you were worried about? We all have. We lose hours of sleep and days of joy over a presentation we don’t want to do that lasts a half hour. We stay in a constant state of tension all day over a meeting with a client, colleague, or boss that will take fifteen minutes. We spend weeks and months in anxiety over an argument with a friend or loved one, only to find the confrontation was more of a productive conversation anyway.
If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about things. Sometimes thinking helps you prepare for what’s to come. Other times, it leaves you stressed and unable to enjoy the present. If only we were able to understand what to worry about, we could have a happiness advantage.
Fortunately, there’s an answer to your worrying about worry. In positive psychology expert Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness, Achor explains ways we can evaluate information to understand if and how much it’s worth worrying about.
What Should You Worry About?
Achor breaks down the information we worry about into two categories: signal and noise. A signal is any information that is true and reliable, alerts you to resources and opportunities, and helps you reach your full potential. This is what you need to pay attention to. It’s the information that will make you happy and successful. It’s worth worrying about. Noise, on the other hand, is all the information in your life that is negative, false, or unnecessary and which distracts you from the meaningful goals in your life.
Achor suggests four criteria to determine if your information is a good signal or distracting noise.
Usable v. Unusable. If the information can be used to help you reach your goals, then it is worth listening to. On the other hand, if the information won’t change your behavior in any way, it is extraneous. For example, the outcome of a sporting event—unless you’re betting your life savings on it—won’t change the meaningful goals in your life. So why are you letting those outcomes determine your mood?
Timely v. Untimely. If the information you encounter can be used now or in the immediate future to help you reach your goals, then you should listen. On the other hand, if the information you encounter can’t be used today to help you reach goals, then it is untimely. Untimely information could be checking the stock market prices every day to see how your investments are doing when you have no plans to sell for years. So your assets going up or down doesn’t mean anything unless you plan to use that information immediately.
Realistic v. Hypothetical. If the information you hear is realistic then you should pay attention. Sound research based on facts is worth listening to. On the other hand, if you constantly listen to “experts,” “talking heads” or watch media with “prediction” advice (market, economy, sports outcomes), then the information is hypothetical. No one can predict the future. Focus on what is realistic and disregard the hypothetical.
Goal Enhancing v. Distracting. Finally, any information that helps you reach your meaningful goals in life is worth giving the time of day. Other information, like the latest idiotic statement from a politician or how global warming will affect beach property you don’t own, is distracting and should be disregarded.
How Much Should You Worry?
Achor also suggests tools for evaluating how much you should worry about something in your life. How many of us have set a philosophy to be cynical when we’re only rewarded for that cynicism occasionally? Or how many of us have equated our worry with being loving or responsible?
Achor suggests we worry in proportion to the likelihood of an event. When something negative appears in your life, ask yourself these two questions:
- How often has this negative event happened to me in the past?
- How often does this negative event happen to people in my situation?
Achor points out when students at Harvard came to his office for counseling, they were often worried they would fail a class or be flunk out of Harvard. When he asked them these two questions, the students realized they had never failed a class before nor did they know anyone who had failed a class at Harvard or flunked out of Harvard.
So the next time you watch the news, listen to an “expert,” or have a negative event in your life, use these tools to evaluate the context of your experience. You’ll come away knowing what to worry about and to what extent you should worry, so you can spend the rest of your time enjoying life.