Thoughts of dread, anxiety and fear occupy a disproportionate amount of space in the vaults of our mental faculties. During times of transformation, there appears a quantum increase in such among feelings as the social contagion of mental strain rapidly propagates. To grapple with, understand and successfully navigate ourselves through anxious times, we need to fully realize the contribution that society plays in conditioning our physiological and psychological responses to our surroundings.
In this post, I outline three destructive societal messages we encounter as we traverse the landscape of modernity. Although flawed and misleading, and despite the impossibility of avoiding these influences completely, by simply becoming more aware of their impactful nature, we can mitigate their debilitating potential.
Destructive Message #1: It’s important to talk about the bad stuff.
At this point in our evolutionary timeline, we are built to survive; not to thrive. To survive the perils of living under prehistoric conditions, our ancestors needed to focus intently on the threats around them or they would have not survived to pass along their genes. Although we no longer have to worry about sabre-tooth tigers or invading hominids, we still possess the propensity to home in on the negative over the positive. This aspect of our human nature is so pronounced that ruminating over distress and conversing about the ostensible doom and gloom feels like problem solving. In reality however, the more we anchor our thoughts on a mishap or threat, the heavier and more threatening it seems. Hope and motivation to proceed past a challenge evaporate with prolonged thought and focus on the specifics. Discussing or thinking about the nature of a threat or mishap is constructive only if you are seeking a solution or gathering information needed to arrive at a solution. Any thought or discourse beyond this, results in heightened stress and anxiety. To curb this societal norm, unplug from the mental reruns in your head and begin conversation about progress and the abundance around us. Stop the incessant scrolling and posting on social media about doom and gloom! Your peace of mind depends on it.
Destructive Message #2: If you are talented and smart, you will be mega-successful.
When we repeatedly ingest this contemporary platitude, it seems logical that a failure to reach this elusive peak must be a result of our inadequacy. The primal fear of “not being enough” triggers a cascade of thoughts that birth anxiety and stress. In reality however, success – no matter how you define it – is multifactorial and often conditions beyond your control play a vital role in its manifestation. One can stack the odds in his or her favor by being persistently consistent in actions that move them closer and closer to their well-defined goal but smarts and intelligence are often overemphasized. In fact, according to experts such as Daniel Goleman, talents and smarts have been shown to play less a contribution to success than emotional intelligence, continual learning, resolve and attitudinal health. It is vital to remember that because the message is loud and ubiquitous, does not mean it is accurate.
Destructive Message #3: The simple, ordinary life is a reflection of failure. And, it is not ok to fail!
For at least a generation, there has emerged a clear message that happiness and contentment are nestled in status, fame, material excess and perfection. We have handed over enormous authority to media and presented it with credibility it does not deserve nor is equipped to handle. Daily, a social media parade of staged beauty, success and materialism dances its allure before our screens. Ignoring the stench of pretense and disingenuity behind the masks of many ( dare I say most) misleading snapshots, it is as easy as it is common to reshape the direction of our lives, trying to emulate this facade. A quick survey of the stress levels, drug dependency, pretense, despondency and pressure among the elite quickly point out the flaws of this societal buy-in. Subjective well being seems to be carried by nurturing healthy relationships, pursuing activities and work that you love primarily for intrinsic reasons rather than extrinsic rewards, leading yourself towards a life of purpose that supersedes the work itself, positioning yourself to be autonomous and grasping the quiet heroism of a life that feeds intrinsic peace. It is here where you feel psychologically safe to fail and try new samples of life that the essence of life can be found. Guard yourself from being attracted towards the noise and bright lights of the empty promise of an improbable life. Instead, find peace of mind in a simpler, more fulfilling, intrinsically grounded life that resonates with the more authentic you. Contrary to modernity’s proclamation, you can and will be loved for leading a simpler, ordinary life … and it is ok to fail. In fact you will fail at more things than you will ever be successful at. This is what it means to learn freely without penalty.
As we navigate our way past this epidemic and adjust to changes in our status quo, a certain level of concern and stress come attached to the challenge. To remain a part of the solution and avoid adding to the weight of the burden however, keep in mind the sources of your anxiety. Find peace and directions in the advice of experts rather than the hearsay and daresay of the unqualified. By becoming aware of the three erroneous or misleading societal messages I have listed, you can avoid the guideposts that lead you off the path towards greener pastures. Avoid kneejerk reactions that cripple and emotionally drain. Instead manage your own life with wisdom and thought that fuel you. There is a light at the end of this tunnel and together we can safely and happily arrive.