This site is intended for health professionals only

Worry yourself well

Dr Raj Persaud
Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital, London

People basically want to be happy. This would seem a simple enough statement that is surely incontrovertible, except that Stanford University psychologist Dr Maya Tamir would beg to differ.
Writing recently in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr Tamir points out that there are many occasions where people sacrifice their happiness in order to attain other goals.(1) This research has implications for nurses trying to motivate patients to take part in more healthy behaviours, like giving up smoking or sticking to their treatment. Tamir argues that most people can be categorised effectively by their pursuit of goals: those scoring high in neuroticism, who tend to worry a lot, are basically motivated to avoid bad things happening to them, termed "harm avoidance" by psychologists. Those scoring low in neuroticism, who are more optimistic about the future, are primarily motivated by the desire for positive outcomes in the future.
The technical definition of worry is a "negative anticipation of the future" - despite the fact worries are probably the most common aversive mental experience, it is an area of mental life that receives surprisingly little investigation by psychologists. Given that worrying is such a bad thing for most people to do, as it accounts for a lot of depression and anxiety, why is it such a favourite human occupation? Or should one say preoccupation? Could it be there are benefits to worry that are not immediately obvious? If so many of us are choosing to worry, then does it not appear we are choosing unhappiness? This would appear to run counter to the basic principle that everyone is motivated to be happy.
Maya Tamir, however, argues in her research that it could be some of us, such as the neurotic or worriers among us, actively choose unhappiness or choose to worry because this actually helps improve our performance in life. In a series of elegant experiments, Dr Tamir has demonstrated that the neurotic tend to be motivated to perform better in various tasks as a result of worrying. So the neurotic work hard for an exam because they are terrified of failure; the non-neurotic work hard because they want to enjoy the fruits of success. Fear of failure motivates the neurotic to work harder and do better than those who were more relaxed about the exam.
This all has key implications for how to motivate ourselves and others. It would seem the first thing to do is assess whether you tend to be neurotic or not and focus on a goal that's appropriate for your personality. If you tend to worry a lot and negatively anticipate the future, it would appear that what motivates you most to perform a difficult task is a fear of bad consequences as opposed to an anticipation of positive ones.
Another way of thinking about this is to examine a classic motivational scenario for many people: they may have a significant event coming up, such as a wedding, and want to lose weight for the big day. The more neurotic want to lose weight because they are fearful of looking fat in the wedding videos, while the non-neurotic are motivated to lose weight because they are anticipating the admiring glances of the guests. Both groups appear at first glance to be motivated for the same event and for the same reason, but in fact while the event is the same, the reasons are completely different. One group is being driven by terror for an awful outcome they desperately want to avoid, the other group is focused on anticipating good things that will happen rather than trying to avoid a bad thing.
The profound implication is that while we may all seek happiness, we seek it for different reasons. The key to motivating us is to discover the reason we would be happy and to appeal to that specific reason, as opposed to just assuming that what motivates one person is going to motivate another equally. Viktor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist who survived a concentration camp during World War 2, put it this way: "A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to be happy."


  1. Tamir M. J Pers Soc Psychol 2005;89(3):449-61.