Openness is the best option
Our desire for certainty makes us unhappy.
In an article in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova discussed our need for what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, called “cognitive closure”. This is our need for certainty. We want answers for why things happen, and if we don’t find answers, we are stressed and unhappy.
We don’t like uncertainty. We want answers about everything. Since we were two years old and could string a sentence together, we’ve been asking “Why?” to understand how the world works. And even as grownups we keep asking that same question: “Why?” We don’t ask, “Why does the sun come up?” or “Why do ducks quack?”. We ask more difficult questions, like “Why did my friend die?” or “Why didn’t I get that job?” or “Why is there only $22 left in my savings account?”
According to Kruglanski and his colleagues, to alleviate the stress these questions produce, we “seize” whatever reason for what happened that makes sense to us at the time, then “freeze” it in place in our minds to keep us calm.
For example, “Why didn’t I get that job?” is an uncomfortable question. It makes us feel a failure. It makes us feel uncertain about ourselves. We need closure to feel okay. So, we generate thoughts about it and pick one that seems the best. Perhaps we select the thought that the interviewer could tell we were too qualified for the job, or that the applicant who gained the position paid a bribe.
Whatever we choose, it calms us down. Uncertainty is gone. We understand how the world worked in that instance. We have a belief about it that we will cling to tenaciously so that we feel safe. Uncertainty is gone – until another situation occurs and we’re once more stressed and overcome with feelings of uncertainty and rush to find an answer – any answer will do – as long as we have closure.
This is a mad way to live.
The theory behind this habit we have of seeking closure by finding a belief that suits the situation is that once we know "why" then we’ll be able to let go of the emotional pain generated by the experience and move on. But what if we can’t find out why? What if there is no answer that makes cognitive sense? What happens then is we battle with heavy, self-damaging emotions for the rest of our life about that issue.
To stop this continual battle to find a belief that will enable us to experience closure, we can do two things:
1. Stop asking “Why?” about life situations.
2. Live with uncertainty.
In other words, instead of seeking closure, choose openness.
Living this way doesn’t disempower you. It empowers you. You’re free from the stressful demand of needing certainty.
The Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote in The Wisdom of No Escape:
As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else.
As soon as you have found a belief to cling to that gives you closure, you aren’t open to any other options. Beliefs create narrow-minded people. Beliefs create barriers.
Accept that life is full of uncertainties.
Uncertainty is a part of life’s charm and a part of life’s challenge.
We have a choice:
Live unhappily in pursuit of certainty or live happily with uncertainty.
With love, Marlane