If you can solve your problem, what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it then what is the use of worrying? -Shantideva
But what if you don’t know whether you can solve it or not?
We live in a uncertain world, where the outcomes of various ventures we engage in (exams, romantic proposals, start-ups) may fail due to unknown factors we have no way of escaping but where the outcomes can be made more favorable if we engage in certain actions (studying, looking good, working hard). However, we are frequently unaware of what actions to take (should I discard studying credit markets to make time for labour markets? Do I look better in the red sweater or the blue sweater? Which project should I start first?).
To make matters worse, humans are myopic – we focus on the short run at expense of the long run. We put in less effort to solve a problem if the benefits are in the distant future. Who doesn’t enter an exam hall wishing they had studied more and daydreamed less?
Worrying is the mental mechanism we use allocate scarce cognitive resources to problems for which a solution may or may not present itself after some analysis, especially when the benefits are far away. Consider the sentiment “I’m not worried about him cheating on me. I trust him.” Translation: The probability of being cheated on is too low to justify allocating mental resources to the task of thinking of ways of preventing it, by (say) calling him every hour or so, or taking the trip with him. Alternatively “Don’t worry, it’s just a game. Go get some sleep.” Translation: A game simply does not generate benefits large enough to justify allocating mental resources to thinking of ways of winning it.
From this viewpoint, Shantideva’s advice is still good – if you can do something, you don’t need to allocate scarce mental resources to thinking of a solution. If you can’t do anything then there’s no gain from “worrying.” If you’ve finished writing the exam, what’s the point of worrying about the results (unless you’re in the mood to break into someone’s office and swap papers.) However, if you don’t yet have a solution, but might be able to think of one, it’s good to worry.
Unfortunately, because benefits are so often far into the future and because people are so myopic, if you had the power to switch your brain off, you would, to the detriment of future-you. Thus a truly effective solution-finding system must be, to some extent, involuntary. This makes Shantideva’s advice problematic – it’s sometimes not possible to not worry, because if it were, we might never think.
Furthermore, worrying seems to be fairly inefficient way to allocate resources – the neurological version of throwing money at a problem. To harness worrying, I suggest sitting writing down your problem to get it out of your head and breaking it down into it’s components to generate possible solutions. To escape worrying altogether, I suggest telling yourself that the “bad” outcome is unlikely or unimportant.
Disclaimer: this post is pure speculation, with zero empirical evidence to back it. Caveat emptor.