Here’s one approach to dealing with the uncertainties of our economic future: Jim Rawles keeps a three-year supply of food on his ranch—he won’t say where it’s located—and has “a bigger gun collection than most and enough ammo to last lifetimes. But the ammo is what I’ll be using to trade when gold and silver will be meaningless.”
Rawles isn’t alone in preparing for economic doom. The survivalist website he founded (survivalblog.com) after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 typically draws 326,000 different visitors a week—and spiked after Hurricane Sandy. Twenty years ago, conservative Christians accounted for 90 percent of survivalists, according to Rawles. “Now, a survivalist is just as likely to be agnostic or Jewish or Birkenstock-wearing lefties. Conservative Christians don’t have the market on common sense.”
The future, by its nature, is uncertain. But it seems even more tenuous than usual these days, as the security of employment, investments, retirement—indeed, the very weather—looks more unpredictable than in decades past. A society of steady jobs, stable families, and a blue-sky future is confined to Nickelodeon reruns. “Increasingly, people are recognizing the fragility and complexity of society,” Rawles said. “We’re more and more dependent on the power grid and greater interdependence on the food supply. Our vulnerability has increased.… People are looking for real-world solutions for their families.”
Americans are living in an age of anxiety. A World Health Organization study published in 2007 ranked the United States as the most anxious nation, by a lot: Nearly a third of all Americans reported suffering from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. (Colombia ranked second at 25 percent.) U.S. prescriptions for antianxiety medications have been rising by 3 to 4 percent a year, recession or not, according to IMS Health, a New Jersey-based medical-information company.
Anxiety isn’t confined to Americans who hold down jobs and mortgages. An annual survey of students entering four-year colleges, conducted by the University of California (Los Angeles), found that 51.9 percent considered themselves above average in emotional health in 2010, a drop of 3.4 percentage points from 2009 and way down from the 63.6 percent registered in 1985, when the survey began. Experts cite weaker ties to the community, less reliance on religion as a buffer against the unknown, a shrinking safety net for pensions and health care, and strained expectations that children will fare better than their parents as factors that increase people’s fears about the future.
“It’s hard to tolerate uncertainty,” said Robert Leahy, a psychologist who is director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. “We think if we don’t worry about it, we won’t be prepared.”
For many people, in fact, the stress of uncertainty can be worse than the stress of knowing the worst. Sarah Burgard, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has examined how the fear of losing one’s job—realistic or otherwise—has affected people’s health. Drawing data from two studies, respectively spanning three and 10 years, she and her colleagues looked at almost 3,000 working Americans younger than 60, some of them anxious about losing their jobs and some of them untroubled. After adjusting for gender, education, income, general anxiety level, and employment history, the researchers found that people who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported more depression and significantly worse health overall than people who had actually lost a job and found another.
Looking more recently at workers in metropolitan Detroit in the wake of the Great Recession, Burgard found the same thing. “There were significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and panic disorder in people who had jobs but were worried about losing them,” she said. “And in some cases, people who had been unemployed but recently got jobs were in better shape than people who had never been unemployed but thought the risk of job loss was high.”
Her conclusion: After someone loses a job or a home, it is imperative to keep pushing forward. “The inability to take action,” she said, “is really stressful.”
Something else can help in dealing with uncertainty: applying some reality to the fears. Most people, psychologist Leahy noted, assume that uncertainty is tantamount to a bad outcome. A study of college students who predicted negative outcomes for, say, an exam or a relationship found that in 85 percent of the cases, the outcome was neutral or positive. “And of those negative outcomes that came true, 79 percent handled them better than they thought they could,” Leahy said. That is, just because you’re worried about something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And even if it does, you’ll probably cope with it better than you expect.
For many people, the stress of uncertainty can be worse than the stress of knowing the worst.
Leahy, author of the forthcoming book Keeping Your Head After Losing Your Job, considers it important to focus on productive worry about things within your control rather than unproductive worry about matters beyond it. Instead of fretting about a stock-market collapse, review your portfolio. He also suggests something else productive: Set a goal every day. If you don’t have a job, he said, try training for a new skill, networking, or taking a class.
Also focus on the here and now. Research has shown that people who focus on the present, rather than on regrets about the past or on fears of the future, tend to be happier and more compassionate. And more productive, according to Janice Marturano. A former deputy general counsel and vice president of public responsibility at General Mills, Marturano launched the giant food company’s Mindful Leadership Program in 2004. The program uses a combination of meditation, yoga, and dialogue—a method for talking things out—to help employees learn to relax and calm down.
The practice has started to spread around the Fortune 500. Target and Google have instituted similar programs. “The reality of leaders today is uncertainty—it’s the norm,” Marturano explained. “When something happens that’s uncomfortable, we tighten up and close down.” She describes her work as helping people “be more open and more comfortable with ambiguity.”
Marturano left General Mills two years ago to start the Institute for Mindful Leadership to promote the notion of mindfulness—of intentionally paying attention to the present moment nonjudgmentally. In this era of unceasing distraction, doing this is way harder than it sounds. She has trained hundreds of corporate executives to practice mindfulness and has been invited to deliver a presentation on the concept at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
If this sounds akin to an Eastern religion, it is. During scary times, many people seek solace in religion, ranging from Buddhism to evangelical Christianity. Evangelical mega-churches offer not only spiritual sustenance and a ready community in a mobile, often impersonal society but also practical help in the form of job banks, Alzheimer’s support groups, parenting classes, and the like.
Religious ritual can be a comfort in itself. “Ritual—daily, weekly, or cyclical—that is so important in Jewish life gives people a sense of structure when everything else is falling apart,” said Mara Nathan, a rabbi at Larchmont Temple, a Reform synagogue near New York City. The thicket of rules on how to keep the Jewish Sabbath—cleaning the house, wearing proper clothes, lighting the candles 18 minutes before sunset—“gave people a sense of security,” she said.
Relying on God can help, too—though not necessarily, Nathan said, “if you’re looking to God to save you. Rather, [ask] how can God’s presence give me strength?” The answer could come, say, in helping others less fortunate. “When we feel uncertain,” she said, “doing for others can make you feel more in control.”
There’s another strategy for dealing with uncertainty: Embrace it. Psychologist Leahy points out that uncertainty isn’t all bad. “The upside to uncertainty is novelty, complexity, growth, learning, and even opportunity,” he said. “We have a need for uncertainty.” Which is fortunate, given that uncertainty is with us to stay.
The writer is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Better by Mistake. She’s at twitter.com/atugend.
This article appears in the November 30, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine as Coping With Chaos.