If You’re Sweating the Small Stuff, Read Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman

Greater awareness of our mindset allows us to make permanent changes.

Bailey Jean Matheson recently died of cancer at age 35, touching people all over the world by writing her own obituary. Matheson expressed gratitude for her loving family and friends and for her beautiful, but short, life. She closed her obituary with this advice: “Don’t take the small stuff so seriously and live a little.”

Some will be transformed by Bailey’s story. But what about the rest of us? Our resolve to approach the world with a lighter touch may carry us for a few days. Then the gravity of old entrenched mindsets takes hold, and we go right back to sweating the small stuff. Inspiration seems to have a short half-life.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Greater awareness of our mindset allows us to make permanent changes. The work of Nobel laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, along with others helps us see how sweating the small stuff leads us to make poor decisions that undermine our well-being.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Like Bailey Jean Matheson, psychologist Dr. Richard Carlson died young. Carlson’s tenth book, the pop psychology mega best-seller, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff... and It’s All Small Stuff, has perennial appeal.

Carlson’s breezy style belies the sound principles behind his guidance. In his book, You Can Feel Good Again, Carlson succinctly summarized one of the principles: your thoughts always create your emotions.

In Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Family, Carlson elaborated. For a moment, remember the last time you felt dismayed at a mess in your home. Did you blame your partner or your children? Carlson writes:

If we're having angry thoughts, we feel angry. If we're having resentful thoughts, we feel resentful… Don't believe me? Just try to get angry right now without thinking about something that makes you angry! You can't do it. In fact, your feelings follow your thoughts just as surely as a lamb follows its mother.

In other words, you are 100 percent responsible for your emotions. No matter how messy your partner is, you could not feel angry without first indulging in angry thoughts about the mess.

One day you are irritated by the small stuff—perhaps the dishwasher wasn’t loaded correctly.

The next day, you adore your partner and feel like the luckiest person in the world. You might be convinced you are reacting to changes in your partner. What if you are really responding to changes in your thinking?

How We Supercharge the Small Stuff

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains the mindset that causes us to give our dysfunctional thinking such relevance. Kahneman points us to the focusing illusion: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

How is your life going? “Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation,” writes Kahneman.

In our search for happiness, we often focus on the small stuff because we think we need more of this and less of that. The research is clear: hedonic changes—a new car, a new house, etc.—in our life do little to increase happiness. Kahneman observes, “even permanent life circumstances have little effect on well-being.”

Your thoughts can multiply faster than rabbits; and soon, you have no mental bandwidth left to get on with your day.

Kahneman observes we will exaggerate “the effect of significant purchases or changed circumstances on our future well-being.” Better to practice the cello or improve your coding skills than researching the features of the newest iPad. “The focusing illusion creates a bias in favor of goods and experiences that are initially exciting, even if they will eventually lose their appeal,” writes Kahneman. After you experience the wonders of the latest iPad, you may find it nice but really not that important.

When Kahneman studied college students in California, Ohio, and Michigan, he found, not surprisingly, that “Californians enjoyed their climate and the Midwesterners despised theirs.” Yet “there was no difference whatsoever in the life satisfaction of students in California and in the Midwest.” Due to the focusing illusion, “All suffered an exaggerated belief in the importance of climate.”

Unaware that you are caught in a focusing illusion, your thoughts can multiply faster than rabbits; and soon, you have no mental bandwidth left to get on with your day. When your day seems like a tedious slog, you might be certain that other people and circumstances are causing your feelings of angst and oppression. You might think everyone, except yourself, has to change. You might demand that social and political views different than your own be silenced. You are your own enslaver.

Negativity Bias

Our minds work against us in another critical way. Kahneman reports on research pointing to a negativity bias in humans. Simply, “bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.”

The combination of negativity bias and the focusing illusion can send us into an endless loop of worry and anxiety. We apply laser focus to thinking that has little or no significance. Just because thoughts come to mind doesn’t mean they are worthy of your attention.When we don’t understand how our thinking can work against us, miserable days stack up.

We can't change a mindset we're not aware of. As you become more aware, you may be surprised by the number of thought storms you experience in a day. Since these storms are coming from you and not from the world, the only change possible is your willingness to have less tolerance for your grievances and thoughts of misery. Just because thoughts come to mind doesn’t mean they are worthy of your attention.

Overcoming the Focusing Illusion

If you forget you are wearing dark sunglasses at 6 pm on a summer day, you might believe the time is closer to 9 pm. You can remove your sunglasses, or at least remind yourself the glasses are giving you false information. Awareness is a powerful cure.

If we want to increase our well-being, Kahneman’s work points us in a helpful direction. The more we are aware of what we choose to focus our thinking on, the more attention we can place on what we choose to experience. Instead of being trapped in thoughts about the small stuff, we have more capacity to experience life.

With awareness, we watch our thoughts drift to the past and the future. We notice how often we insist on carrying around grievances. Thoughts of an argument that happened last week are merely a memory we recreate via our thinking this moment. When our thinking is drifting to the past or future, simply noticing the drift can bring us back to the present. Being present, in a state of flow, vanquishes the small stuff.

Kahneman observes,

We all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.

The “decent hero” doesn’t emerge by allowing mental illusions to squander time.

When you catch yourself making a big deal over the small stuff, imagine a part of you is sitting in the audience, watching yourself act out on the stage. Hear yourself utter your tired grievances. Consider the trouble your grievances create for others. Then, smile and say, “Here I go again.”

When we free up our mental bandwidth, we might be surprised by what is possible.

Ask, who is witnessing your antics? By asking that question, you have restored the power of choice to your mind. Your latest thought, as my UK friends might say, is probably rubbish and can safely be ignored. You are not that discordant, brash, incessant voice in your head demanding you pay attention to the small stuff.

When we sweat the small stuff, we are actively choosing against the best version of ourselves. We might find ourselves blaming society for the miserable choices we have made. When we free up our mental bandwidth, we might be surprised by what is possible. What we focus our thinking on determines our experience of life.

More by Barry Brownstein