We live in constant uncertainty. But yet we convince ourselves that isn't true. And perhaps it's our greatest defence mechanism.

I remember once knowing that someone was going to break up with me. He gave me a pretty good indication by writing a letter… but then I had to wait two days before I saw him to find out for sure (I'm not bitter – I understand there's just no nice way to break up with someone). But having an early indication was torture. It was so much worse than just knowing it was going to be over, because there was still that bit of uncertainty. I remember cleaning the flat frantically thinking: at least if he breaks up with me I'll have a clean flat!

There's a fair bit of commentary out there on the link between uncertainty and unhappiness. This Economist blog post shows how humans don't behave rationally when there's substantial uncertainty in their environments.

But what is it about uncertainty that bothers us?

Daniel Gilbert, who is a professor at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness, wrote in a blog post for the New York Times about this phenomenon. He cited a few instances of research where knowing about something negative was much better than not knowing.

For example, research at the University of British Columbia showed that people who learned they had a very high likelihood of developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington's disease were happier a year later than those in the study who did not learn what their risk of developing the disease was.

Gilbert says in his post:

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

I agree, and my own theory is that it's as if our brains are better geared towards solving definite problems than dealing with unknowns. When we don't exactly know what the problem is, or will actually be, it's as if the brain heads off to work and searches to locate it, spinning round in circles like a tire when a car is up on blocks.

And it's very hard to stop. The brain can often act a little like a runaway train, getting faster and more out-of-control. But I think that the best way to regard terrible uncertainty is the way we deal with the rest of the constant uncertainty in our life, including the ultimate one – death – by just not thinking about it.

Am I crazy for saying this? When you're facing very bad uncertainty: the results of a scary medical test, the possible end of a relationship, potential job loss or a missing person – how do you not think about it? The brain is racing and it wants to solve the problem, but guess what, it can't.

Obviously I'm not telling anyone not to do proactive actions about uncertain situations when they can do something. But there are so many situations where all you can do is wait. And it's really hard not to think about something when you're in distress – but we've all had experiences of doing this successfully. Something funny happens and suddenly the worry is gone for a moment. Where did it go? If we can try to extend these time periods, by focusing on the present moment and realizing that there's nothing we can actually do, we can help ourselves and the others around us.

The problem with not being able to deal well with uncertainty is that it's always with us. Sometimes it's worse than other times, but essentially, having a successful coping mechanism for dealing with uncertainty is something that lasts, frankly, for a lifetime.

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