I've been interested in the nature of worry for a number of years, devouring the research on this important topic, writing articles and a couple of self-help books, and giving talks. Before I give a workshop I obsessively check my powerpoint slides, double-check the hotel reservation, and make a couple of copies of my electronic files and email them to myself and the workshop coordinator. I like to think of this as "productive worry" and to congratulate myself on being conscientious. I do all of this while my cat, Franky, demands attention, jumps on my lap, sits on the keyboard, and -on a regular basis-steals my food right under my nose.
It never occurred to me that he has all the right attitudes. He doesn't worry. He doesn't ruminate. He is a cat.
OK. Since I do have an interest in ethology and since I am a devout follower of the Darwinian revolution, I thought that perhaps cats have something to teach us. Let's face some evolutionary facts. Humans have been evolving and changing continually, perhaps suggesting how unsatisfactory the new model is and the continual need for nature to make a recall. Take a look at our sorry fossil record and I can assure you that you will not come away with a "bravo" for permanence:
If you read this the way I do, we have continually faced recalls and redesigns. You might think that a couple of hundred thousand years beats the warranty on your recently recalled Prius, but when it comes to evolutionary time, we are constantly finding faults with our own design. We may think of ourselves as "homo sapiens", giving greater emphasis at our conceited moments in the sapient nature of our character, but we are hardly well-adapted and happy. We worry, we pout, we suffer from depression, some of us commit suicide. Now, I ask you: Does that sound like a cat?
Well, no, of course, not.
Here's why. Worry is based on our belief that any intrusive thought that occurs needs our attention. If I think, "I am going to make a fool of myself", then I have to pay attention to it. Worry follows from our incredible ability to anticipate the future-far beyond the next few seconds. We anticipate how people will think of us at the next party, how our finances will collapse in the next year, and how we won't be able to take care of our sick parents ten years from now. In fact, our evolved ability to think about other minds provides us with the ability to think about how they think---and we think that they think we are losers, buffoons, boring, and annoying. We think so much that we also think we are going crazy, because we have a standard of normality. If you want to find out more about the rules for being a worrier or just a plain nervous wreck then do us both a favor and go out and get my two self-help books, The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You or Anxiety Free: Unravel Your Fears Before they Unravel You. I try to give you the very rules for being a worrier, social phobia, panic disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder---and, of course, how to cure yourself.
But what is interesting is that it takes a lot of thinking to be a neurotic. Think about it. I rest my case.
While we have constantly been fixing ourselves through the process of natural selection-which is really "natural rejection"---cats have remained largely the same for the past 10 to 20 million years. There are no cat-recalls of paws that accelerate suddenly or tails that don't rise when one desires. There are no whiskers of discontent, and even six-toed polydactyl cats are immortalized as "Hemingway" cats. They have been worshipped, reviled, hired again to rid Europe of bubonic rats, made it to the cover of magazines, and been imbued with both Satanic and ethereal qualities. Throughout it all, cats have remained aloof, assured, demanding, and cool.
How to Think Like a Cat
Cats don't have our problems.
Now cats have an advantage. They only rely on four general thoughts. Look at your cat-or call someone who has a cat-and observe the following "cat cognitions":
THIS FEELS GOOD
THIS DOESN'T FEEL GOOD
I WANT THAT
Like a laser-beam focused on mindful awareness of the present moment, with Zen-like immediacy and the ability to adapt to a sick and disturbed world, cats look at the world through feline felicity and think,"This feels good". OK. They are hedonists. They like a warm radiator. They prefer your food. They sleep more hours than you will ever live. It all feels good. Except when they think, "This doesn't feel good". And they let you know it--perhaps a meow, perhaps a glare, a frown, a distasteful condescending look behind those whiskers. You get the message. It has to be restored to "This feels good" as quickly as you can shift your seat in the chair to make it more comfortable for your cat. Now, "This feels good" and "This doesn't feel good" hardly result in rumination and worry. It's hardly anticipation of all the possible mishaps that might occur. No, it's like a tasting menu for life. "I like it" or "I don't like it". Period.
Not the ingredients for worry. How about "I want that"? That's quite simple. As your cat ascends into conscious awareness from his third-eyeball position, glancing across the room and notices a piece of chicken on the counter, the thought comes into cat-awareness, "I want that". Immediately, your cat activates his predatory capabilities to leap in a manner defying the law of gravity to within one inch of the chicken and steal it for HIS MEAL. Yes, your cat, the predator with style, has momentarily returned to his primary cat strategy: "Find it, kill it, eat it". The simplicity is thrilling, liberating. Cat-like. Worry-free.
Or, your cat has the ambitious, but momentary, thought, "What's next?" This is not the kind of planful, problem-solving thinking that led to Google. No, this is more like a cat eye scanning the room and seeing a ball moving. "What's next?" mobilizes the predatory chase to catch the ball, repeat the motion, think again, "What's next?", into an apparently endless recursive process that ends with "This feels good".
In fact, all of it comes down to, "This feels good".
What's missing in cat-cognition? All of your worries. Cat's are not thinking, "Have I done a good job?" or "What will other cats think of me?" Cats are not overwhelmed by all the tasks listed on the Outlook calendar. Cats are not concerned if they gain a little weight and their stomach hangs down as they prowl around. They aren't thinking, "Did I offend someone?" They don't carry a watch, there are no cat blackberries. Phone calls and emails go unanswered. They are beyond indifferent. If Buddha were to evolve a little more he might come back as a cat.
They may have four cognitions-and, yes, you may take pride in the four thousand thoughts that you are having today that are making you anxious, worried, angry, confused, guilty, ashamed, overwhelmed and perfectly human. You have the thoughts---but cats have the thoughts that work. They have evolved not to think about the worrisome intrusive ideas that are not relevant to the life of being a cat.
Now you may say, "No cat can write an article"---true-but why would they bother? Or you might add, with a smirk on your anxious face, "Cats never meet deadlines." Good point. OK. So, you won't hire a cat, you won't use one for your financial planning, and you might not ask your cat for advice on buying a Toyota. Smart of you. But just think if you went through the day as a cat, hedonistic, living in the moment, indifferent, playful, sleeping a lot, using humans as furniture to sleep on, and getting your way. Maybe your family and friends would say, "What happened to his ambition?" As you stretch after a deep sleep that is repeated hourly, you look up with disdain and a small touch of momentary curiosity walking ever so slowly toward your food. Not a worry in the world. Purring softly, "This feels good" with an occasional, "What's next" on the immediate horizon.
Not a bad life.