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One Upside to the Feeling of Uncertainty

Greater Good Magazine

Ever since it began, the pandemic has been a crash course in uncertainty. Safe behaviors, school openings, vaccination timelines, the job market, new variants—these have all seemed to change on a weekly basis, threatening our sense of security and stability.

Uncertainty is stressful and perhaps even harmful to our health, research suggests, and it can drive us to cling to our social groups to the exclusion of others. But a new study has uncovered a surprising upside to feeling uncertain: It might drive us to appreciate the little things in life.

Smell the roses

In one experiment, researchers stationed on a sidewalk handed out flyers that said one of two things: “Life is unpredictable: Stop and smell the roses” or “Life is constant: Stop and smell the roses.” A short distance away was a table with a dozen red roses on it and a sign matching the flyer they’d just received.

Research assistants hid behind a bush to see who stopped and who didn’t—and it was the people who read that life is unpredictable who buried their noses in the fragrant flowers, 2.5 times more often than the others.

Why? Savoring and appreciating the small things in life may be a coping response that our minds activate when we feel overwhelmed by the ambiguity of it all. Savoring pulls us out of fears and worries about a fuzzy future and into the clear, pleasurable sensations of right now.

“If the world is uncertain, it makes sense to take advantage of what you have now because it may not exist shortly,” explains Andrew L. Gregory, the lead author of the study.

The researchers found similar results in another experiment, where, instead of handing out flyers, they recruited nearly 400 people to watch videos. Some saw a video purportedly describing the conclusions from a scientific conference about how unpredictable and random our lives are, accompanied by chaotic graphs and rolling dice. Others saw a similar video, but with the opposite message, about life’s underlying order and structure. A final group saw a video about the history of trains.

Compared to the other two groups, those who watched the chaos video reported more intentions to savor life. They said that they should enjoy the present and appreciate simple things, and would linger on good feelings if something wonderful happened to them or a friend.

Savoring in real life

A final set of findings suggests that this effect does translate to everyday life, even if you don’t happen to come across a video or flyer about uncertainty. Here, researchers recruited over 6,000 people and pinged them up to a dozen times a day, asking how chaotic and unpredictable the world felt in that moment and whether they were savoring the present.

It turned out that when the world felt messy, people were more likely to be savoring their lives a few hours later, at the next ping.

Of course, the relentless uncertainty of the pandemic doesn’t lend itself to feeling mindful and appreciative all the time. But Gregory suspects that this pattern still holds.

Indeed, many people reported feeling grateful early on in the pandemic. One of our Thnx4 members, for example, journaled about missing out on her daily socializing at the neighborhood cafe and instead of making small talk with strangers on her morning walk. “It reminded me not only to appreciate but to seek positive experience,” she wrote.

While savoring may happen naturally, it’s also something we can practice deliberately when life feels unsettling. For example, you might share your good news or gratitude with others, or tune into the enjoyable sights, sounds, and smells around you. When you work on controlling your attention this way, Gregory says, you may feel like you have more control over your life in general.

The flyers and videos in these experiments are a good reminder that our sense of uncertainty is changeable. Based on that, it makes sense that reading political news or social media posts from our friends could influence how stable or chaotic our lives feel. Being selective about the media we consume could help. Or, says Gregory, when we’re feeling adrift, we could try reflecting on times in our life when we felt secure and certain.

Savoring isn’t the only potential upside to feeling uncertain. For people who are less well off, confronting a chaotic environment can actually drive them to prioritize community. In these ways and perhaps others, our brains try to protect us from the unpleasant but unavoidable uncertainty of life.

About the Author



How to Trust You’ll Be Okay No Matter What (aka the Art of Embracing Uncertainty)

By Leslie Ralph | Tiny Buddha

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” ~Ursula K. Le Guin

Did you play with cootie catchers as a kid?

You picked a number and watched anxiously as your friend counted it out. Open. Close. Open. Close.

You chose a color or picture or word and waited in anticipation as your friend unfolded the flap and read your destiny.

Or how about that MASH game? Mansion, apartment, shack, house?

I played these games with an insatiable desire for all the details.

How is all of this going to play out?

Where will I live?

What will become of me?

I was fascinated with details and anyone who could supply them. Fortune cookies, horoscopes, and psychic phone readings all held the promise of telling me exactly what I yearned to know.

Will I be okay? 

With time, curiosity gave way to hard-core, type A planning. I’d plan everything out in excruciating detail and get my heart set on one specific outcome.

I’d make a deal with the cosmos. Everything will be okay if it turns out just like this, okay? Okay.

I craved certainty and the illusion of control.   

The answer “surprise me,” made me uncomfortable. Playing it by ear was torturous. Penciling it in felt like the easy way out.

I’ve made a lot of plans along the way: graduation plans, wedding plans, birth plans, career plans. Yet, no matter how painstakingly crafted these plans were, I was always a little surprised with where I ended up.

My actual wedding dress was nothing like the pictures I collected with friends in high school.

My thirty-eight-hour, two epidural labor was nothing like my 100 percent all natural birth plan.

My house in Arizona is nothing like the one I’d dreamed of having in Northern California.

And I’ve been okay.

Okay, universe. I get the message.

It’s not really about the details.

We can make the best of difficult times, rising up after we’ve been dragged through the muck. We can surprise ourselves with what it turns out we actually want. And we can rain all over our own parades.

The details are delicious, though.

It’s so satisfying to make a list and check things off. It feels so good that sometimes we’ll even write down the things we’ve already done. And there’s something so soothing about having the who, what, when, and were sorted out.

Best of all is knowing that the whole plan is exactly, perfectly the way you want it. It’s positively intoxicating.

The only trouble is that the details hardly ever turn out as planned.

This whole attachment to details thing is getting harder as time goes on. At a time when I most want to know if we’ll all be okay, I suddenly can’t figure the details out. Maybe I’ve lost my touch, or maybe the plans are getting more complicated.

There are so many more variables and people involved now. Where it was once just me and my cats, there’s now me, my husband, my children, our families, old friends and new friends, employers, clients, school systems, licenses, and a mortgage to consider.

With each new piece comes countless questions. So many, in fact, that I can’t even picture what all of this is going to look like.

That’s got to be okay.

I’m learning to accept that I’ll be okay if I don’t know the details because I know how I want to feel and what I want to leave room for in my life.

As much as we’d like to take credit for them, the details are often things that just present themselves when they’re good and ready to be seen, anyway. They tend to sort themselves out in ways that we never could have planned.

We take one step, then another. We prepare the best we can with what we know, knowing how we want to feel when it’s all said and done. Then we reassess along the way.

Part of me really wants to fight that because it still believes that having all the answers now will guarantee that everything will be okay. Maybe it’s time to start having a little more trust that I’ll find a way to be okay no matter what happens.

The more comfortable I get with letting the details reveal themselves when the time is right, the more aware I am of all the people who want to know the plan right now.

They want to know when you’re visiting or moving back to your hometown or having your next child or finally graduating or asking for that raise.

They ask all kinds of detailed questions about your plan, so much so that it can leave you feeling ashamed for not having figured it out.

I get it, too.

People want to feel closer to you or important or useful. They want to be heard.

Maybe they’re kind of nosy. Or bossy. Or maybe they’re bored.

Maybe they just really care and want to solve what they think is a problem for you.

And maybe they also have a deal with the cosmos that everything will be okay if

I get it because I’ve been them. I’ve interrogated, and I’ve demanded answers. Even after understanding that I can’t have absolute certainty (or control), I’ve been that person squeezing out the details before it’s time.

Understanding is different from knowing deep in your bones that you’ll be okay no matter what.

When you know, you live and breathe it. Instead of seeking control, you seek clarity. Instead of certainty, you seek courage.

When you know the truth, you also know that it’s supposed to be a little scary to look out into the uncertain future. It’s unnerving to say, “Here goes nothing.”

It takes courage to walk into the future knowing that you don’t have all the details nailed down. Your next step may be right, it may be wrong, it may lead you nowhere, and people may think you’re crazy, but you have to take it at some point.

The truth is, no one ever really knows how it’s all going to look, but you probably have a good idea of how you want to feel and what’s most important to you. And if you don’t, maybe that’s why the details are so elusive.

(But all the same, you don’t need the details.)

You don’t need to see the details to trust that you’ll figure them out when the time is right, and you don’t need to see your path to know in your heart that it’s there waiting for you to take that step.

You don’t need to know exactly how every piece will play out to know what the most important pieces are.

And you don’t need absolute certainty to know that you’ll find a way to be okay no matter what happens.

I’m not saying, “Let’s all throw caution to the wind from now until forever.” Make plans, yes, but there’s no need to obsess over the details if the details aren’t clear. Meet planning with flexibility and trust. Be curious about what happens next, not controlling.

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