Although claims about the ‘unprecedented’ times we live in can be overblown, I think it’s reasonable to state that we exist in an uncertain world.
This article by Kristin Wong in The Cut talks about the importance of being able to tolerate uncertainty, as this “improves our decisions, promotes empathy, and boosts creativity,” — according to Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America and author of the book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.
Uncertainty can create cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding two contradictory thoughts, opinions, or beliefs. Ironically, though, not being able to deal with uncertainty can be equally distressing. An intolerance of uncertainty is linked to anxiety and depression. So how do you get better at tolerating it?
The article suggests that you start off with a quiz to ascertain your tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty. However, life is short, so I’d skip that and move onto the meat of the article.
We’re better or worse at tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity in different situations. It’s not like we have a single emotional gear.
There are certain times you might be extra susceptible to certainty, Holmes suggests. “Our need for closure is heightened when we’re rushed, bored, tired, or tipsy,” he said. So when you’re feeling any of those things, or maybe all of them, be aware that you might be prone to cognitive closure at that time.
Your desire for certainty probably also varies depending on the situation. You might be anxious over your bank account, for instance, but you don’t really care how you did on your performance review. Pinpoint these concerns, then avoid what Michel Dugas, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, calls “certainty seeking behavior.”
In order to improve our relationship with uncertainty, we need to get our of our comfort zone, and out of our heads.
“Two ways to get comfortable with uncertainty, perhaps surprisingly, are reading fiction and multicultural experiences,” Holmes says. “Make reading short stories or novels a habit. Likely because it invites us inside the worlds and minds of characters unlike ourselves, fiction makes ‘otherness’ less threatening.” He adds that both fiction and multicultural experiences not only lower our need for closure and help us make better decisions, but they also make us more empathetic. Research, like this 2010 study, shows that multicultural experiences fuel creativity, too.
Travel, reading, learning a new language, experiencing another culture — these all present new experiences to your brain, which force you outside of your comfort zone in rewarding ways. Also: They are fun. Sounds like a pretty certain win-win.
I’ve actually read Holmes’ book. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a Philosophy graduate who’s already done some work on ambiguity, but I found it underwhelming. It is worth, however, thinking about ways in which we can all deal with uncertainty.