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.