The Modern Survival Guide #38
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I do consider them very carefully, and I try to make sure I keep a good perspective on them. Coincidentally that’s the topic of this article — attaining perspective, and some tips I’ve found to keep it.
So let’s be honest — many of us in the modern world are just this big ball of nerves and stress. It’s how the world is set up. There’s always some new task that needs doing, or some important piece of paperwork that needs to be renewed, or some appointment we have to keep, and there’s never enough money. The news media and social media don’t help — they just make it easier to see all the things going wrong in the world and, if we’re honest, our utter individual helplessness to change most of them.
It’s important, then, to keep perspective — to keep track of what’s really important, what isn’t, and what we can ignore. This is one of the things that separates a happy life from a stressful existence. So here are three tricks I’ve found that help me keep a healthy viewpoint in life:
- Recognizing Small Things as Small Things
- Boxing Problems
- Seeking Balance
With luck, a couple of them might work for you!
Recognizing the Small Things as Small Things
Truly, our lives are chaotic, hectic, and a few other things that inspire tics. So it becomes very important to mental health to remember the following true statements:
At the end of the day, you’re a speck of dust sitting on a rock circling a midsize star that is but one of uncounted trillions.
Many things we think are important are not, in the grand scheme of things.
And life is short.
Now, on the first blush, that seems like kind of a downer, doesn’t it? Kind of nihilistic. Kind of in the vein of “nothing we do matters and we’re all gonna die.” But that’s not my point and that’s not the takeaway. You have to flip the script, because what it really means is that we often put way too much emphasis on things that don’t align to our life goals, and way too much pressure on ourselves.
Life is short, and it has only the meaning we give it. We should not spend too much of that life on things that don’t make our lives (or the lives of those around us) better. We should not spend too much time worrying about things that won’t actually impact us that much. We should not bother with a great many things that don’t help us achieve our life goals.
Holding grudges, for example. Hating a person for decades usually does not make a great deal of sense. Either resolve the issue, forgive, or forget; anything else wastes energy in a world where you can literally move a thousand miles away from someone you dislike. Your energy is better spent on other things.
Getting upset when other people make decisions that don’t affect us and don’t hurt them, there’s another good one. I genuinely do not care what consenting adults get up to in their own bedrooms, for example. It doesn’t affect me, and if it’s not harming anyone then let ’em go at it. There are more immediate concerns for all of us than any of that.
Similarly, our worries are frequently all out of proportion to the importance of events. What’s the point of getting worked up over something as prosaic as a job interview? Or a first date? Or a change in routine? All of these things are transitory; in the great scheme of our lives they may leave memories, or possibly alter our trajectory… but more likely, they’ll end up as little more than a sideshow to the great play. So don’t stress too hard.
Now, that sounds all nice and logical, doesn’t it? And as we all know, human beings are very logical and we can certainly control our emotions and feelings, and we certainly don’t let illogical superstitions or cultural mores get in our way. Or… not. Not at all. Nonetheless, a brief perspective reminder can help us get past events that our biology insists are significant but aren’t really all that special.¹
In this sense, this advice is a bit like the old standby for public speakers — imagining the audience naked.² Except instead of that, every once in a while just take a look at life, and then look up at the sky and contemplate the actual importance of anything in relationship to the greater universe. And see if that gives you a sense of freedom from the petty small things in life that stress us out, and a sense of focus on the things that give your life meaning.³
It works for me.
We have a tendency to view things as connected. This is part of the great strategy of the survival of the human species — we’ve evolved to recognize patterns and see connections between cause and effect. But we also developed a corresponding logical fallacy to see connections where there are none, and to mismatch causes and effects.
It can be tempting, then, to sometimes see all the negative things in our lives as a gestalt mass — one interconnected mesh that proves the universe is out to screw us. I know I’ve had days like that — waking up to a burnt breakfast, crashing the car on the way to work, getting dumped on when I got to work, etc. Sometimes it really does seem like our myriad problems are colluding.
Of course, this isn’t true. The universe doesn’t care. Or if it does, we can’t prove it, which is more or less the same thing. In any case, the mindset that everything is out to get you is insidious, crippling, and sneaks up on most of us from time to time. This can make it hard to do things… like get out of bed — why try if the whole world is out to make you fail? At the very least it’ll stress you out.
One of the solutions I’ve found to this is to “box” problems. That is, to mentally categorize problems into discrete entities; see the trees instead of the forest. Identify the problem, see its boundaries, try to understand its particular causes and effects, and work out how to solve it as a discrete entity.
This makes it easier to prioritize, analyze, and resolve things. It sometimes helps to write things down when doing this, or draw diagrams. And then you can tackle each box one by one (or a bunch at a time, I guess; I’m not good at multitasking but maybe you are) and whittle down the factors in your life that are causing you problems.
This will probably result in fewer days where it seems like life is out to get you, since so many of those days are really the result of us not solving other problems in a timely fashion. And if not, it will at least give you a strategy for surviving the days when the universe is not on your side.
It works for me.
I have workaholic friends. I have slacker friends. I have stressed friends and I know people who are so mellow that I wonder how they work up the motivation to chew their food. And as much as I hate the whole “moderation in all things” shtick, there is an element of truth there — I think it is important to lead a balanced life.
I’m not talking about making sure both feet hit the ground at the same angle. What I mean by “balanced” is balancing work and leisure, stress and relaxation. If you have a long day, do something fun at the end of it. If you’re stressed out, do something that reduces your stress. Don’t let the world convince you that you are being unproductive if you take a break every now and then.
This has practical applications. We know, for example, that as a rule people who study hard but de-stress the night before a big test tend to have higher test scores than those who cram all night. They’re not as anxious, they don’t blank out or panic on answers, and they seem to have better memory recall.
This has real-world implications since, if you think about it, everything is a test. There is no practical difference between taking a test and writing a contract proposal, for example; your work is judged at the end in both cases, and stress will affect you in either situation.
There are also health benefits to consider. Keeping yourself balanced is a strategy for stress reduction; making time to de-stress and engage in relaxing activity has real health benefits and real health consequences. If you can avoid stroking out in five years by stress-reducing for an hour a night now, that seems like a good trade to me.
It’s also important to recognize that a fair few of our problems in life stem from simply not doing anything about a different problem. Living a balanced life is as much about taking time to do work every day as it is about taking time to relax. A purposeful life isn’t all about lounging around, after all.
In my experience though, anecdotal as it may be, most people tend to fall on the side of not taking enough time to relax — particularly at certain times of life. It can be incredibly hard to find time to relax after the birth of a child, for example; but that’s also exactly the time when you will be most in need of stress management.
Living a balanced life is therefore about intentionally keeping both work and play, stress and relaxation, in a balanced state. This takes effort, planning, and willpower. But I think it is essential to surviving and thriving in the modern world.
It works for me.
A Positive Perspective
These points contribute to what I would call a “positive perspective.” This is a perspective built around knowledge of one’s place in the world, the events that are affecting it, the solutions to problems with it, and ways to stay in balance to avoid self-inflicted problems.
A positive perspective in this sense is not about being happy all the time! This is one of those pernicious self-help advice errors that keep cropping up — this idea that a good worldview will keep you happy. You will not be happy all the time. You should not be happy all the time — if you are, you’re brain damaged or ignorant, and good luck to you. Happiness isn’t the ground state of humanity, you don’t gain it with knowledge, and it’s not what I mean by staying “positive.”
“Positive” in this sense simply means that you are moving forward. You are capable of seeing your position and solving your problems. You are capable of ignoring things that don’t affect you and contributing to things you care about. You are capable of balancing yourself and staying centered, focused, and productive.
That’s it. That’s all. That’s a lot. It works for me.
¹Note that this is not intended as a substitute, in any way, for psychiatric care. If you’re depressed, for example, that’s neuro-chemical and/or indicative of some more deep-seated problem; please seek treatment, part of which may involve counseling that covers some of these points, but most of which will be more focused on your particular needs.
²I’ve never understood why that would be an improvement. Speaking personally, the number of people I encounter daily who I would like to see naked is vanishingly small. But I guess the point is simply to give your brain something to do that isn’t worrying… or at least not AS worrying.
³Many people, when faced with the infinite, have difficulty ascribing purpose to their lives. I have always found that contemplation of the universe is useful, but measuring purpose against it is not. Purpose is about what we can do right now. The universe is a tool of that purpose; the fact that it is infinite is a supreme blessing, not an indication of futility. To quote Hobbes (of Calvin & Hobbes, not the other one), I’d like a sandwich. I’m also not saying that events here on Earth don’t matter. They matter very much — to us. But it’s worth remembering that only a select few things affect us.