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There are good reasons why the future worries us more than the past

There are good reasons why the future worries us more than the past

That Oliver Burkeman

“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies,” said Gore Vidal, perhaps playing on a quote commonly attributed to Somerset Maugham: “Success is not enough. Others must fail."

But a fascinating study published recently suggests that the mere possibility of a friend's success may be even worse: researchers have found that we're more envious of the things others will have in the future—rise in job, dream vacation, dream partner – than for the ones they already have. In real life, of course, this is partly because the experience turns out to be disappointing.

In this case, however, the reason is simply that it is no longer set in the future: once the Caribbean vacation is over or the promotion is achieved, people who were shaking with rage before it happened are now no longer (and maybe they immediately start to envy those who will go on vacation next month).

Parallel life

It seems strange because, after all, isn't the essence of envy about wanting what others have, instead of what they will have? But this discovery highlights a more general psychological truth, and that is that the future often haunts us more than the past, precisely because it is open. This is most obvious in the case of worry: the future events that worry us do not cause us as much anxiety when they happen, and then no one is too late for them.

It's the same with envy: the possibility of my friend's new book becoming a world bestseller allows my imagination to think about all the possible consequences, but once it's a reality - even if it's really spectacular - it's already a thing finished and concrete. I can get used to the idea, maybe even be happy about it (I said maybe).

What stands out is that often in life the problem is not the problem itself, but the lack of clarity, the lack of sharp edges that prevent us from grasping it. That is why it is liberating for us, when burdened with a thousand things as we are, to start and make a list, even before we finish the first point of it.

It's also why it's said that we regret more the things we haven't done than the things we have done: we can console ourselves for bad relationships or mistakes made in our careers, but not for the loss of an infinite number of lives. parallels that we could have lived, if we had used more opportunities.

This is why "writer's block" often comes down to the fact that we don't have clear ideas about what we want to say, rather than the difficulty of saying it.

A useful question

It is also the reason why virtually all personal finance gurus advise us, as a first step, to have a clear picture of our income and expenses, our assets and our debts, even if this initially means overcoming a fear, because we can better manage a real situation than a completely hypothetical one.

All of this suggests a useful question to ask ourselves when faced with a stressful problem. Are we sure we know what the problem is? Or is that stress partly due to fear, or psychological refusal to face reality? Because however dire the reality may be – and in the coming months and years you'd do well to keep this in mind when you read the news – it cannot by definition be infinitely dire, as you feared.