At 80,000 Hours we focus a lot on developing ambitious plans to dramatically improve the world.
Something we haven’t written so much about is how to overcome the challenges – heartbreak, rejection, failure, illness, grief, conflict and more – that are sure to arise as we attempt to follow through on those plans, and which risk throwing us off course.
We don’t have particular expertise on this topic, but I wanted to share an approach that me and some friends have found useful, and which might help you as well.
When bad things happen in life, the thoughts we then have about them have a big impact on how much they harm us. Even where we can’t avoid the direct suffering inflicted by a problem, we can at least avoid hurting ourselves further, by ruminating about it and getting trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts.
In the case of the minor annoyances we face every day, maintaining our equanimity can almost entirely eliminate the harm they cause us. And even when we face serious adversity, ensuring we think about it the right way can limit the damage, and save us from falling into depression or another negative spiral. (Though this list isn’t really suitable for seriously traumatic events.)
To help myself with this, I’ve made a checklist of questions I try to work through when something unpleasant happens, in order to reframe the situation and get over it as quickly as possible. The basic idea is similar to cognitive behavioural therapy.
Here it is:
- Is this actually going to materially hurt me over a significant period of time? How much cash would I have paid to prevent it? If not a lot, maybe I shouldn’t be too upset.
- Is there some hidden upside I haven’t noticed yet? How could this actually end up being beneficial?
- Is this misfortune funny or ironic in some way? For example, is it either completely typical or totally unexpected in an amusing way? If I’m catastrophising, are my over-the-top misinterpretations of the situation themselves kind of funny? Would I see the funny side if it happened to a stranger?
- Is this the kind of bad thing I should have anticipated, such that it should have already been built into how I feel about the world?
- Could something even worse have happened that didn’t? Are there other people who’ve ended up even worse off than me, which make me look, if anything, lucky?
- What unexpected good things have happened to me lately, that have offset my bad luck in this case?
- What would I say to someone else if this happened to them? Presumably not “I suggest you… feel bad 👌”.
- Do I endorse the idea that everyone in the world who encounters a situation of this kind should also be sad? If not, why should I be sad? I should not.
- What can I learn from this situation that will make me better off by preventing the same, or worse, in future?
- Is there any way I can get around or overcome this problem which actually won’t be so bad? If so, I should just do that.
- Based on past experience, do I have the strength to get through this tragedy? Unless this is among the worst things in my life, the answer is almost certainly yes! Have I gotten through something similarly bad in the past? Again, almost certainly, yes! Am I still distressed by similar misfortunes from the past? Almost certainly not – in which case, why bother being distressed about this thing now?
There’s an additional list for times I feel someone else has wronged me:
- Can I see a way that what they’ve done would have been reasonable from their point of view?
- Is there any way of interpreting their behaviour that doesn’t imply that they were inconsiderate or mean-spirited? For example, maybe they didn’t know some relevant information, or foresee this outcome? Or just got unlucky?
- Yes people are dumb and make stupid mistakes. Shit happens. 🤷 Just get over it.
- Has this person ever done any nice things for me that help to offset the harm they’ve done here?
- Have I ever wronged someone similarly, by accident, or through selfishness? Yes. Is this person actually less considerate than me, all things considered? 50/50 they aren’t.
- If the above fails, can I just avoid this person in future, and pay them no further mind? Hopefully! In which case, problem solved and I can move on.
I often forget some of these in the moment, but a few I’ve learnt to do as an automatic reflex, and they are very helpful.
My colleague Maria Gutierrez has turned these questions into a literal paper checklist that you could print and pull out of your jacket whenever they might help.
While I’ve found these questions beneficial, people are diverse and nothing is going to be the right fit for everyone.
Some folks have told me that their main problem is not ruminating on the negative things in life, but rather denying the emotions they’re experiencing, and feeling they are illegitimate. In that case, these questions might encourage you to feel ashamed about feeling sad, or whatever other emotion you feel is unacceptable. It might be worth reflecting on whether you’re in that group, and so should use these questions with care.
Nonetheless, cognitive behavioural therapy, from which these reframings are derived, is regarded as the the most promising first treatment for a wide range of mental health problems, so I hope these lists are useful to you as well.
I’m interested to get feedback on how they could be improved, and where it has or hasn’t worked, at my email ([email protected]).
- How the Stoics can help us tackle anxiety, fury and loss of perspective from the School of Life
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain. By Jason M. Satterfield, The Great Courses
- This Buddhist Parable Can Ease Your Suffering During a Crisis by Philip Perry
- Discussion of cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing, on Wikipedia