Why People Worry Much More Than They Need To

A shift in human life 10,000 years ago may have started the problem.

Posted Mar 14, 2018

Unlike all other animals, human beings have the capacity to think about themselves far into the future. Whereas other animals respond to life mostly on a moment-by-moment basis, our ability to imagine the future allows us to behave in ways today that will have desired consequences later on. Self-awareness is essential for planning for the future, improving ourselves, and avoiding future threats. 

Although thinking about the future is critical to our well-being, most of us think about the future far more than needed to manage our lives effectively. Thinking too much about the future distracts us from our life as it unfolds in the present moment and, worse, fuels a great deal of anxiety about what might happen tomorrow, next week, next year, or decades from now.  Other animals experience fear when they face actual threats, but they don’t seem to worry about what might happen in the future.  

If we worried only about things that were actually going to occur, and if worrying always helped us deal more effectively with future problems, our ability to look ahead would be an unmitigated blessing.  But most worry is unnecessary.  Most, of the things that we worry about never actually happen, and, when they do, the events are rarely as bad as we imagined.  And even when our fears come true, worrying in advance rarely helps us cope with them.

But, if worry is often useless or, worse, maladaptive, then why do people worry so much? Why are people plagued by anxiety when it is not helpful or even detrimental?

 [Alexander Dummer/Pexels; released under CC0]
Source: Source: [Alexander Dummer/Pexels; released under CC0]

Social psychologist Leonard Martin at the University of Georgia has suggested an intriguing answer to this question.  Martin speculates that self-generated worry about the future became a problem only in the last 10,000 years or so. Before then, our prehistoric ancestors were able to think about what might happen in the future, but their hunting-gathering lifestyle did not evoke a great deal of unnecessary rumination about the future. For millions of years, life was lived mostly day-to-day, with no long-term goals to accumulate possessions, succeed, or improve one’s lot in life. Our prehuman ancestors focused primarily on what needed to be done today, and tomorrow was left to take care of itself.  Nomadic hunter-gatherers without homes, possessions, or long-term goals have little reason to think more than a day or two ahead.

But when the agricultural revolution began around 10,000 years ago, people began to think about the future a great deal.  Unlike hunter-gatherers, people who rely on agriculture must think about the future a great deal.  Farmers must plan for planting, as well as for how their crops will be tended, harvested, and stored. Because so many things can ruin their yield, farmers fret a great deal about the weather, pests, and whether their crops will grow, and then about protecting whatever they raise from thieves, rodents, and rot.

To make matters worse, the feedback that farmers receive regarding their goal of producing enough food to survive is sporadic and uncertain. No matter how well things are going at the moment, a drought, infestation, stampede, or marauding horde could undo one’s hard work in the blink of an eye, leaving one’s family to starve. Farmers can never feel secure about their future even when everything seems to going well at the moment.

In addition, agriculture brought a lifestyle change from nomadic clans to sedentary communities. For the first time, people owned houses, livestock, and supplies of food, so they had to be vigilant about protecting their property.  Furthermore, agriculture was associated with a division of labor and social roles, so that people began to worry not only about their personal futures but also about the well-being of the other people on whom they depended. If I plan to trade some of my wheat for some of your chickens, I will worry not only about my own crop but about your chickens and your health as well.

 Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Deutsch: Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem English: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If Martin is correct, agriculture brought a new set of psychological stresses because it moved people from a hunting-gathering lifestyle that was characterized by day-to-day living and ongoing feedback about whether people were meeting their basic needs to a lifestyle in which people invested their efforts each day for uncertain outcomes in the distant future. And, because human beings had evolved in an environment in which they received ongoing, daily feedback about how their life was going, they were not prepared to deal with the uncertainty of living for the future.

Ongoing changes in society have made our obsession with the future even worse than it was at the time of the agricultural revolution. In modern society, people spend much of their time thinking about, planning for, working toward, and worrying about future goals. Many of our goals (such as paychecks and vacations) lie days or weeks ahead, whereas others (such as educational degrees, job promotions, new houses, and retirement) may be years in the future.  Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, much what we do each day is directed toward outcomes that we hope to obtain in the future rather than toward what we need today.  

And, we rarely receive ongoing feedback about our progress toward our important goals. Prehistoric people knew day-to-day whether they were achieving the important outcomes that dominated their lives (particularly obtaining food and avoiding danger), whereas much of our lives, like those of the earliest farmers, focus on distal, uncertain outcomes and events. No matter how hard you work today, you have no assurance whatsoever that you will achieve your long-term goals. Martin’s analysis suggests that anxiety became much more pervasive after the agricultural revolution because we started spending far more time focusing on and worrying about the future.

Of course, modern life requires that we think about and work toward future goals, so we wouldn’t want to stop thinking about the future even if we could.  But we can be on guard for times in which our ruminations about the future are unhelpful and unnecessary, and we can look for ways to wrestle our thoughts away from a brain that spends too much time focusing on the future.   

References

Martin, L. (1999). ID Compensation Theory: Some implications of trying to satisfy immediate-return needs in a delayed-return culture.  Psychological Inquiry, 10(3):195-208.