Is worrying worth it?

There is an absolutely terrific article about one man’s battle with debilitating anxiety over at the Atlantic Monthly web site. Not only is it an example of thoroughly engaging long form journalism, it has a hilarious account of being struck by gastrointestinal bowel issues while staying on the Kennedy estate.

Deep in the article, the author raises the possibility that anxiety—some anxiety—is good.

An influential study conducted 100 years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, laid the foundation for the idea that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance: too much anxiety, obviously, and performance is impaired, but too little anxiety also impairs performance. “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” David Barlow, the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, has written.

The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling away our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.

I’ve seen this point made before and it makes intuitive sense. If we, as a species evolving through time, were unconcerned with worry we never would have survived. And even in the present day we need some level of alertness to get things done. This is the advantage experienced by the college student who waits until the last minute to write a term paper; the resulting anxiety of the moment sharpens his or her thinking.

The article continues:

Historical evidence suggests that anxiety can be allied to artistic and creative genius. The literary gifts of Emily Dickinson, for example, were inextricably bound up with her reclusiveness, which some say was a product of anxiety. (She was completely housebound after age 40.) Franz Kafka yoked his neurotic sensibility to his artistic sensibility; Woody Allen has done the same. Jerome Kagan, an eminent Harvard psychologist who has spent more than 50 years studying human temperament, argues that T. S. Eliot’s anxiety and “high reactive” physiology helped make him a great poet. Eliot was, Kagan observes, a “shy, cautious, sensitive child”—but because he also had a supportive family, good schooling, and “unusual verbal abilities,” Eliot was able to “exploit his temperamental preference for an introverted, solitary life.”

Perhaps most famously, Marcel Proust transmuted his neurotic sensibility into art. Proust’s father, Adrien, was a physician with a strong interest in nervous health and a co-author of an influential book called The Hygiene of the Neurasthenic. Marcel read his father’s book, as well as books by many of the other leading nerve doctors of his day, and incorporated their work into his; his fiction and nonfiction are “saturated with the vocabulary of nervous dysfunction,” as one historian has put it. For Proust, refinement of artistic sensibility was directly tied to a nervous disposition

But one can bring up a rebuttal here. So anxiety creates good art? So what? Is being an artistic virtuoso worth being a nervous wreck for your entire life? (For that matter is it worth being a good accountant, software engineer, sales rep or much of anything?) Robert Sapolsky has talked about how our fight or flight mechanism—originally used to protect us from attacking lions—is now used to make us worry about catching the subway on time. Shouldn’t we, in our modern, much safer society, be worrying less—much less?

I see the grand Catch-22 here. Worry too much and you’re miserable. Worry too little and you’re dead. However. I think society is tilted too far in favor of the former.

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