Fear is Killing Your Happiness
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light ~ Plato
One of the biggest problems I see in society these days is fear. It most often shows itself in the form of worry, people are afraid and so they worry about so many things that could go wrong, or harm them, or might happen. I’ve written about this problem before in a piece entitled, Worry the enemy of happiness. But today I want to talk more specifically about fear for two reasons. First I see people expressing a lot more fear these days than I ever remember hearing and seeing before. Secondly, most of the things that we fear are irrational.
I often hear people, usually people who want your support in some way, saying how smart people are and I’m not sure I agree. Now you know you’re smart so of course that statement must be true. However if it was, I don’t think we would so often see people letting their emotions overwhelm they’re intellect. You may argue people are smart but they don’t use it. This is like arguing that Billy is a really fast runner, he just never runs fast. Possibly true, but not very likely. What is often said about people that I do agree with is that people fundamentally want to be good and kind and happy. I have seen this demonstrated, not so much in day-to-day society but in times of deep sorrow and tragedy. People get caught up in a me first attitude day-to-day, but when confronted with the truly harsh realities of life their better nature usually comes to the fore.
Let me point out, in relation to our fears, exactly why I’m not convinced people are very intellectual. I know perfectly fine human beings who climb into a car and drive every day without a care. In the United States, nearly 33,000 people died in car crashes in the United states in 2013, nearly 100 per day! Those exact same people will not wade more than ankle-deep in the ocean because they are afraid of sharks. On average in the United States, ONE person per year is killed by a shark, six are killed worldwide. There are normally less than twenty shark attacks in the US each year. Our fears about sharks I have a feeling went up significantly in the 1970’s with both the book and the movie Jaws.
Our fears are driven not by an intellectual evaluation of risk but our emotional reaction to the object of fear. In the last ten years, less than 100 Americans have been killed in the US by terrorists. If you want a bigger number you can go back to 9/11 and the total will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3200 people in the last fifteen years. In the last ten years, there have been roughly 300,000 deaths due to gun violence in the United States. Yet I hear much more concern about terrorists coming to the US to kill us than I do about fearing gun violence from other Americans. Again, this is driven by emotion not rational risk analysis, but I get it, the image of planes flying into towers, massacres in the streets of Paris, news of deaths in San Bernardino cause an emotional reaction.
Having an emotional reaction to something terrible is utterly normal, reading about someone being attacked by a shark or killed by a terrorist at a cafe should elicit a fear response. That you react emotionally to the event does not impact your happiness. How you choose to react and act past that initial response is what can damage your happiness.
If your reaction to shark attacks is to spend hours worrying about a shark attack before you go to the beach you’re impacting your happiness. If you are unable to enjoy yourself in the water because you are very afraid that impacts your happiness negatively. Worst of all, if you won’t go to the beach at all, or won’t go on a cruise or let your kids swim in the ocean you are letting your fears keep you from doing things that will very likely make you happier. Some may argue that if you have that fear then staying home is the best option, you’ve escaped your fear and aren’t stressing. But I’ll give you another way to look at this, you’ve let your fear dictate the way you live your life and have reduced the number of positive experiences you are able to have. If you begin to avoid everything that harm you pretty soon you’ll be living in a padded room.
I see the same thing with terrorism, yes, there are people in this world who are willing to kill you. They want to kill you for nothing more than your nationality, religion, color of your skin, sexual orientation or any number of other things that someone has deemed is wrong. For this reason I see people speaking out in unkind ways about people they have never met. I see political leaders using this fear as a foundation for bigotry. Hatred and suspicion will never be a path to kindness, generosity or happiness. And I would argue that most people see themselves as kind, generous and want to be happy.
When we come back to actual risk however, we see that terrorist truly pose very little risk to our lives. This does not mean we shouldn’t work to reduce that risk for us and others, but it also doesn’t mean we should act in ways that are counter to our core values. In particular where refugees are concerned, I believe we should continue to vet refugees the way we do, do a good job of weeding out those who mean to harm others. We have the data that in fact shows over the last ten years there has been very little risk created from the hundreds of thousands of refugees we’ve admitted to this country. We typically admit about 70,000 refugees per year into the United States.
I don’t think we should fantasize that we can ever devise a perfect process, or that people may not change after they are in the United States for years. We’ve seen this fear before in the United States, fear of Italians, of Jews, the Irish, Mexicans and Communists. And yes, throughout our history we’ve allowed folks to immigrate to the United States who have turned out to be mafia members, criminals, Communists and others who were not a positive force on our society. But this number has always been small, we emotionally fear the new, those we see as other, in reality these people have always and will almost certainly always pose a very small risk to each of us. On the other side think about how these people have enriched our society and culture, it is part of what makes America the envy of the world.
So let’s get back to being happier in our daily lives. We need to reduce the fears that we have and hopefully this will lead to reducing worry and the stress that it brings that is so detrimental to your health. My recommendations are as follows:
- Reduce your news intake, particularly your cable news intake. You don’t need to watch 4 hours of coverage about the latest attack regardless of where it is or how many people have died. Understand that local news also has a formula that will cause you unnecessary worry. Whatever tragedy occurs, attack, earthquake, meteor strike, Ebola, local news will always do a story, entitled, <insert horror> can it happen here? Even if the answer is no that story will still make you worry.
2. When you do start to fear and worry about something, do a reality check. I’m afraid of Ebola, let’s see how many people have ever died of Ebola in America, zero, ok, maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about that. It may not eliminate the worry but it should put it in proper context.
3. This will seem counter intuitive, but scare yourself, stretch yourself. I am a huge proponent of adventure leading to happiness. I can tell you from personal experience, the more you test and scare yourself and succeed, the more you will begin to realize that your fears aren’t as real as you believed them to be. And focus on that, if you’re afraid of shark attacks go to the beach and just watch. Lot’s of people frolicking in the surf and no one is getting voraciously consumed by the epitome of swimming death. Focus on the reality of your experience instead of the fantasies of your fears.
4. Finally, actively work to stay positive, when you are worrying or afraid, ask yourself is there another way to look at this situation? Instead of focusing on the 6 shark attacks this year, how about focusing on the hundreds of millions of people who swam in the ocean without being attacked.
I hope these tips can help and I want to make a final comment related to social media. It’s easy to express your fears behind a computer screen and to dismiss other opinions. Online we seek out others who echo our opinions, be careful. If we have a fear about sharks and we post and read posts about shark attacks, the algorithms for sites like Facebook will feed you more posts about shark attacks. In those posts you see lots of comments for people with the same fears which amplifies and confirms your own fears. Be smart about how you use social media and don’t respond to others who disagree out of emotion and fear.
So my friends, try to reduce your fear and worry, try to focus on more kindness and generosity and have a happy day. I’ll end this piece with one of my favorite quotes from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, I have always found these words to be profoundly wise and have quoted this to myself at times when I was truly afraid. ~ Rev Kane
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. ~ The character Paul from Frank Herbert’s Dune
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