Stress follows a peculiar principle: when life hits us with big crises—the death of a loved one or a job loss—we somehow find the inner strength to endure these upheavals in due course. It’s the little things that drive us insane day after day—traffic congestion, awful service at a restaurant, an overbearing coworker taking credit for your work, meddling in-laws, for example.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the many irritations of life. We overdramatize and overreact to life’s myriad tribulations. Under the direct influence of anguish, our minds are bewildered and we feel disoriented. This creates stress, which makes the problems more difficult to deal with.
The central thesis of psychotherapist Richard Carlson’s bestselling Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff (1997) is this: to deal with angst or anger, what we need is not some upbeat self-help prescriptions for changing ourselves, but simply a measure of perspective.
Perspective helps us understand that there’s an art to understand what we should let go and what we should concern ourselves with. As I mentioned in my article on the concept of opportunity cost, it is important to focus our efforts on the important stuff, and not waste time on the insignificant and incidental things.
I’ve previously written about my favorite 5-5-5 technique for gaining perspective and guarding myself against anger erupting: I remove myself from the offending environment and contemplate if whatever I’m getting worked up over is of importance. I ask myself, “Will this matter in 5 days? Will this matter in 5 months? Will this matter in 5 years?”
Carlson stresses that there’s always a vantage point from which even the biggest stressor can be effectively dealt with. The challenge is to keep making that shift in perspective. When we achieve that “wise-person-in-me” perspective, our problems seem more controllable and our lives more peaceful.
Carlson’s prescriptions aren’t uncommon—we can learn to be more patient, compassionate, generous, grateful, and kind, all of which will improve the way we feel about ourselves and the way that other people feel when they are around us.
Some of Carlson’s 100 recommendations are trite and banal—for example, “make peace with imperfection,” “think of your problems as potential teachers,” “remember that when you die, your ‘in-basket’ won’t be empty,” and “do one thing at a time.” Others are more edifying:
- Let others have the glory
- Let others be “right” most of the time
- Become aware of your moods and don’t allow yourself to be fooled by the low ones
- Look beyond behavior
- Every day, tell at least one person something you like, admire, or appreciate about them
- Argue for your limitations, and they’re yours
- Resist the urge to criticize
- Read articles and books with entirely different points of view from your own and try to learn something
Carlson’s succinct insights have hit home with legions of the hurried and the harried. He became a bestselling author and a sought-after motivational speaker. Before his tragic death in 2006 at age 45, Carson followed up “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…” with some 20 tacky spinoffs intended particularly for spouses, parents, teenagers, new-weds, employees, and lovers.