The Finite Pool of Worry Edition

The positive side of being totally freaked out

The Finite Pool of Worry:

Because people have a limited capacity for how many issues they can worry about at once, as worry increases about one type of risk, concern about other risks may lessen. More here.

It’s such a beautiful little phrase. The Finite Pool of Worry. I think about it often, especially when I realize that I’m not worrying about climate because I’m fretting about things much closer to home, like work, my children’s health, or whether we have enough bland, orange cheese in the fridge to keep my son eating. COVID-19 is a perfect example of how we have little choice in what consumes our finite pool of worry, and why climate always gets the short end of the body of water.

If there’s a tiny glimmer of something to be learned from all this horribleness it’s how emotional the decisions are regarding our finite pools of worry. COVID-19 is enveloping us emotionally, and amplifying our more quotidian concerns as well. Of course there’s no room for anything else. There’s barely room for climate when we aren’t consumed with worldwide pandemic. Those trying to inject it into the current conversation seem woefully out of step with what it means to be a human right now.

Which is not to say that it’s not worth thinking through COVID + climate. It’s just that rhapsodizing about reduced emissions due to contagion isn’t that helpful. These are not sustainable reduced emissions. We’ve reduced emissions before during a crisis, and they always just creep back up.

But back to these melancholy pools of angst. Perhaps the most useful thing about this crisis is it’s providing us an opportunity to engage with our worry, to itemize the things that make our hearts race the most. With few places to go, we have more time to really think through the anxieties. And with COVID-19 at the top, my extremely irrational fears of clowns, crime procedurals, and conga lines have all but dropped off the list. Though perhaps I should keep conga lines in the pool, given all that physical contact.

The lovely Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo posted this anxiety trick a few days ago, and it’s a quite wonderful piece of behavioural science. In a nutshell, it’s all about imagining positive outcomes, rather like this excerpt from Christiana Figueres’ book that I mentioned last week. Envisioning a positive future doesn’t mean ignoring risk and worry or suppressing fear, but it does give hope and strength...and can galvanize fruitful action. Things could be OK, or even better than OK.

It can be tough to distance ourselves. As the brilliant academic (and co-originator of the FPoW) Elke Weber writes:

We enjoy congregating; we need to know we are part of groups,” Weber said. “It gives us inherent pleasure to do this. And when we are reminded of the fact that we’re part of communities, then the community becomes sort of the decision-making unit. That’s how we make huge sacrifices, like in World War II.

But unlike WWII, we’re being told to not come together physically. Which doesn’t mean we can’t convene digitally, sending each other less physical equivalents of love and support like custom emojis. We can even sing together, alone. How beautiful is this?


In the words of Drake, Take Care! 

I hope you all have the support you need. I hope you’re making cookies and reading good books, taking care of loved ones, and being taken care of by loved ones, and getting help if you need it. 


PS As I walked home from dropping my daughter off at what will be her last day of school for three weeks, a pulse of sun suddenly cut through the blanket of grey. Wishing you sunbreaks!

PPS Many thanks to Bernadette Kinlaw for proofing this newsletter! And to Ben, whose newsletter you should check out, as a witty respite from worry.