The Pain of Uncertainty

In the May 20 NY Times, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes some interesting observations about our current national psyche. The title captures his main point: “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous.”

Gilbert maintains that “light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier.”

So, then, why are we so bummed about our current travails? Gilbert answers, “because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.”

I won’t claim to understand the national mood, but I can say that I’d prefer bad news to uncertainty. I also cannot improve upon Gilbert’s reasoning: “Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.”

He concludes, “Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.”

Here’s the link:

To learn more about Daniel Gilbert, read his bestseller Stumbling on Happiness or check out his website:

Onward, Malcolm Gauld