How have we evolved to deal with uncertainty?

There are a number of podcasts that I subscribe to, but as is the case with a lot of these new digital products, the list of unplayed episodes begins to pile up and I become overwhelmed by the amount of time I would need to spend to catch up. Oh well. There’s no real sense in being critical about how I choose to spend my time – instead, I truly am grateful at the incredible variety of content that publishers put out there.

I have really enjoyed Dan Harris’ “Ten Percent Happier” podcast over the past year, and while browsing my list of new episodes today, I came across one that caught my eye. The guest was Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist practitioner & author, speaking about the Buddhist approach to monetary concerns. In these times, I admit to being triggered by thoughts of lack, and being or having enough. I’ve got some good tools at my disposal to help me through these thoughts, but was really interested in how they were going to address this topic. Have a listen – it’s more than an hour long, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

Dan Harris makes a comment about how it appears to be a flaw in our evolution that we haven’t been able to better adapt to uncertainty, even though uncertainty is at the core of our reality. Our brain just doesn’t seem to cope with it well.

Evolution has gifted us with a negativity bias to help our brain decide on actions to keep us safe. They mention a Buddhist concept I had not heard before called the “8 worldly winds” – basically how the mind is blown back & forth between extremes, like hope & fear. Sometimes we cling to the positive outcome too much, or swing to the other extreme and fear the negative outcome.

The approach they recommend is to allow the mind to rest in the middle of these extremes and to watch & observe instead. They also reinforced the idea that the winds are impersonal – while some of our actions may result in consequences, the impersonal nature of the winds means that we can remove any shame from our interpretations.

They mention some additional great coping tools that help us deal with uncertainty. Mindfulness is one of these tools. It helps us make better decisions and be kinder to ourselves and others. Gratitude is another tool to help us get over our negativity bias. Both of these are tools at our disposal but they do require practice & effort.

I’m in the midst of taking an online course through edX called “The Science of Happiness” and one interesting observation I’ve come away with is that we actually have evolved in ways to help us cope with uncertainty. Compassion is how our species adapted & evolved. While our brain still keeps us alert & safe from danger, compassion & connection are the ways we evolved to be social in order to rely on each other and mutually benefit. The studies they quote show how infants have a sense of compassion and how we likely “unlearn” that over time. They also make the important distinction between compassion & empathy, where compassion goes beyond empathy and feeling & understanding what someone else is experiencing and actually being motivated to do something about it. I haven’t completed the course yet, but they state definitively that altruism and compassion are ways that we can increase the level of happiness in our lives.

So, in these uncertain times – showing compassion can be one of the best ways to break the cycle of thought patterns that focus on the negative. By all means, acknowledge and be thankful for your brain helping to keep you safe, but make room for compassion for yourself and others. I’ve been doing this more actively for the past couple of weeks now with my family, friends and work colleagues. At work especially, reaching out to help someone has had a huge effect on both our frames of mind and has brought small amounts of joy. They’ve also brought about a small sense of control & accomplishment, that this was an action that I opted to take.

Thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this and I hope that you find the links to the podcast & course interesting and that some of this has resonated with you.

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