Is worrying just a waste of time? The future is uncertain, and we can’t control it. Or is worrying only sensible? Do we need to make prudent provision for the future?
Worry is Futile
Worrying about the future is sometimes seen as a waste of time. The reasoning goes something like this. The future (by definition) is not here yet, it is entirely uncertain (we can’t control what will happen), so to worry about something that doesn’t exist and that we have no control over is utterly pointless.
This line of reasoning seems unarguable. But I’m going to have a go at arguing with it.
The problem I see with this argument is that we usually deal in probabilities about the future, not absolutes. It’s certainly true that we can’t absolutely control the future. It is very probable however that the utility company and the tax department will want to be paid when they say they do. In this way the future is part of the present. Our current actions have (future) consequences and it is usually a good idea to have some ideas about these. It doesn’t seem foolish to me to be fairly sure that spending money on a slap-up night out tonight will mean that I won’t have the money to pay a bill tomorrow.
I think a lot of our lives are predictable. In this way the future is a part of our present.
Prudent Provision is Sensible
If our lives are predictable, runs the line of reasoning, we need to make prudent provision for the future. We need to have a realistic plan, with measurable goals, and stick to it. In this way our lives will be more comfortable and enjoyable. To this way of thinking worrying about the future is only common sense and well worth putting some time into.
This line of reasoning also seems unarguable. Here is how I argue with it.
1. The problem is the ‘black swans’ — there are always unforeseen things. They are called “black swans” because Europeans for many years only knew about white swans. They had never suspected that black swans existed, until they turned up in another part of the world (Australia, where I’m from). So the “black swans” symbolise those things which the world throws up that we can’t anticipate: just because all the swans we’ve seen so far have been white doesn’t mean they’re all white.
At the moment the world is experiencing a financial crisis, which, we are assured by those who know, is the worst ever. A few short months ago this simply wasn’t on the radar. The future certainly can be unpredictable.
Those who disagree with the ‘be prudent’ line of reasoning like to point to events such as this. It is good evidence that they are right.
2. The other problem with the ‘prudent provision’ line is that it can lead to an awfully tedious life. It paints the world in academic/bureaucratic grey. There isn’t a whole lot of room for excitement or risk taking. Certain types of people would rather chance calamity than have the certainty of dull predictability.
Is it just a case of different personalities? I think this is part of the story. Some people prefer the quiet life, others enjoy variety and surprise.
I think the situation comes into it, too. In the financial world there are different degrees of risk. The financial world itself is less predictable than other parts of the world and more predictable than others. Entering the lottery is different to analysing a stock market, and each is different to analysing a market and setting up a business or pursuing a training regime to win at a sport. There are different degrees and kinds of risk.
It seems to me too that we have different degrees of control and influence. We probably have much more influence with our friends and families than with the financial markets.
It seems to me that ‘the future’ is in some way part of what we deal with ‘here and now’. What do you think? Do you feel worrying is just a waste of time? Do you feel that it is better to prepare a plan that attempts to take account of all eventualities or stay light and loose? I’d love to hear how you respond to risk. Let me know in the comments.
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