Times are tough, and everything is uncertain. Our McMansions are being foreclosed on, Hummers repossessed, and just when some of us think we've been spared from unemployment, our companies announce another round of layoffs. While I've written before about ways to manage your economic stress, I've decided I, personally, need to find a new outlook—a way to calm myself down and lower my blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
So I called physicist and systems theorist Fritoj Capra, author of one of my favorite books, The Tao of Physics. It was a bestseller back in the 1970s and makes fascinating parallels between subatomic particles—which behave according to the uncertainty principle—and East Asian religions like Buddhism and Taoism, which emphasize the interconnectedness of people with one another and all things in nature. I begged him to impart some scientific wisdom to help me feel calmer in the face of all this uncertainty.
He tells me to consider the following five things:
1. We're not machines but living systems: The world's economic system is like the human body. We can do everything right, but that still won't protect us from being stricken with a nasty flu from time to time or with a life-threatening cancer tumor. "In the previous century, we took a very mechanistic view of the world," he tells me. "That if competent people run it, we will always have good outcomes. But that's not necessarily true." Of course, he adds, scientists can usually look at systems and predict the general shape of things. If you don't smoke, become obese, or eat too much junk food, you're maximizing your odds of good health. The forces that led to the current economic turmoil were akin to bad health habits. "Our global economy was wrongly geared to maximum efficiency with larger and larger banks and too little diversity," Capra says. That goes against nature, which favors diversity—and frowns upon close cousins (or companies) marrying.
2. Uncertainty is inherent in our world : "I've come to believe that the recognition of uncertainty is the most important achievement in science in the 20th century," says Capra. We now know, for example, that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and we can't predict with absolute certainty what it's going to do in the next billion years—or even whether it's going to rain tomorrow. "In order to completely explain any single phenomenon, like a global recession, you'd have to explain with complete certainty how it's connected to everything else, and that's impossible," he says. So when politicians equivocate over how effective the stimulus plan will be, they are acknowledging the degree of uncertainty inherent in all systems. As Capra says, "We must be content with approximations."
3. All systems are cycles: Think circle of life. (Watch The Lion King if you don't know what I'm talking about.) "My grandmother knew all about the life cycles of plants and animals, how we recycle the waste of one species as food for the next," explains Capra. "We need to once again remove ourselves from the notion of linear progression: that everything lasts forever, whether it's continuing economic growth or a steel building." Developing this sense of perspective about nature may bring peace of mind in a downward cycle. It can also help you make wiser choices in the future, such as avoiding too much credit card debt when times are flush in recognition of the possibility of leaner times ahead.
4. Complex problems have complex solutions: Taxing those AIG bonuses isn't going to fix the recession; nor will replacing the head of General Motors. If you think in terms of quick fixes, you may have a momentary jolt of pleasure when the market's up for the day or the bad guys get what's coming to them, but you'll probably feel down in the dumps when the slump drags on and on. I think I may be more comforted if I employ a little patience and think in terms of long-term multifactorial solutions. Capra, for instance, made me feel more optimistic when he told me that President Obama's plan to fix many things at once—like healthcare and energy shortages along with the economy—is actually a smart approach because it focuses on the entire system. "With all things being interconnected, we must identify solutions that will solve all the problems together," he contends. And here I thought the president was just trying to deflect attention away from job losses.
5. Sometimes initial solutions fail : We can't expect politicians, economists, or even scientists to have all the answers to problems. Often, they must go through a trial-and-error process. When facing uncertainty, Capra says, "we have to try certain models and strategies, see how they work, and scrap the ones that don't." Given this, I've resolved to mentally prepare myself for a step back for every few steps forward. And, heck, if we take way too many steps back, we can always vote (again) for change.
Here are other ways to manage your money-related stress and 7 ways to boost your sex life when the Dow plunges.