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THE STRESS OF UNCERTAINTY


Daniel Gilbert (a psychologist at Harvard), citing a recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, said "that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise."


The real problem is not financial, he said. It’s not that people don’t have enough money. It’s that people don’t know what’s going to happen. Will I have a job next week? What’s ahead in the future for me?


The future seems ominous, or at the very least uncertain, and that uncertainty puts people on edge. Professor Gilbert referred to a Dutch experiment where researchers told one group of people that they would receive 20 strong shocks. The researchers then told a second group that they would receive only three strong shocks along with 17 mild ones, but they wouldn’t know when the strong shocks would come. The results? Subjects in the second group sweated more and experienced faster heart rates. It was the uncertainty that caused their discomfort, not the intensity of the shocks.


Another study showed that colostomy patients who knew that their colostomies would be permanent were happier six months after their procedures than those who were told there might be a chance of reversing their colostomies. Once again, uncertainty caused the unhappiness.


Daniel Gilbert concluded, "An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait...Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty."


(Daniel Gilbert, "What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous," The Week magazine, 6-5-09, p. 14. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Dungeon and Dreams, 9/8/2011)

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