Employment can be associated with multiple forms of day-to-day stress. Our work can cause job strain, low decision latitude, low social support, and high job insecurity — all of which have been associated with poorer physical health and mental health, including depression and anxiety disorders. When workplace stress reaches a certain threshold, it can even cause people to consider suicide.
Suicide is currently happening at epidemic levels. Unlike the other top 10 causes of death in the United States, it is the only one that appears to be a conscious choice. Sadly, this apparent exertion of free will over one’s natural demise appears to be gaining popularity.
Metaphorically speaking, suicide is the result of a sailboat trying to beat the wind rather than working with the breeze to enjoy this journey through life.
Conventional Wisdom on Suicide
It can be incredibly difficult to understand why people choose to kill themselves, but there are several factors at play. In the majority of cases, there is an underlying mental illness involved. And in many instances, there are strong associations with poverty and access to guns. When people are on the edge of suicide, they often experience feelings of rage, hopelessness, guilt, and despair.Socio-economic forces seemingly are a key factor in high occupational suicide rates in Britain. Work-related access to lethal means is a major risk factor for suicide in the employed population. From 2000 to 2016, the suicide rate among the U.S. working-age population increased by 34% — from 12.9 suicides per 100,000 people to 17.3 suicides. In other words, it’s increasing quickly.
If we view suicide as a “diseased” choice, then we might choose to believe that a lower cerebrospinal fluid level of the main serotonin metabolite is responsible for this distortion of the will — or that depression, substance abuse, psychosis, and other mental illnesses have challenged suicide victims to aggressively act against themselves.
A Fresh Perspective
What if we instead viewed suicide as an erosion of “possibility thinking” and a failure of imagination to buoy our egos from the vast array of threats, uncertainties, and disappointments that threaten our stability on a daily basis? If we did, we might seek to restore this positive imagination and build societal structures that aimed to do the same.
In the service of restoring possibility thinking, Jim Selman and I are building the Center for Existential Confidence, an institute dedicated to helping people learn how to commit to a sense of positive possibility. Uncertainty, loss of control, and escalating disappointments can become burdensome and stop us in our tracks. To overcome these hurdles, we work with people to restore the power of free will without waging a war against uncontrollable factors. The model is less about grit and more about imagination. It de-emphasizes control while placing individuals at the helms of their own ships as they journey through life’s many uncharted territories.
This model takes advantage of biological realities that foster psychological and philosophical growth. In recognizing that brains have limited attentional capabilities, for instance, we recommend proactively creating problems worth solving. In that way, you leave less space to react to the various irrelevant problems that come your way in the course of a day. Rather than viewing ourselves as people who are made by their memories, we believe that our brains are in fact endowed with the capabilities to imagine and simulate alternate realities that we can then construct.If you leave your brain open to incoming problems in a business environment, you’ll be reacting to other people’s problems all day. Instead, create your own problems so that only a few brain units are available to pay attention to these unexpected problems that disorient you.
When we see ourselves as architects of our own futures, we expend our energies on designing a future rather than accepting what comes our way. An architect does not have to be filled with hope, wishful thinking, or radical fantasies. Instead, he works with the lay of the land, a realistic budget, and the available materials to build a future that he has imagined. This is the faculty missing in anyone who has decided on suicide as the only alternative. These individuals forget that our brains allow us to be master builders of our own futures.
So how do we implement these principles? Rather than solving the problem of suicidal thinking, we simply strengthen our own life-promoting capacities.
1. Set aside ‘architect time’ in your week.
Set aside three to five hours a week to enter plans in your architectural journal. Forget about reality — design the life that you desire, and then work with reality to shape your vision.
For instance, say you want $1 million in savings in the next two years. Ask yourself how you might design this. What jobs might make this possible? What new investments might foster this? What new partnerships could help you reach this goal? Then, reach out to people on LinkedIn to see what might be possible.Goals don’t automatically help you reach them. In your brain, they are competing for attention all the time. When you set aside architect time, your brain will have a little more time to come up with priority tags for your more important goals. You can also see how your goals fit into the big picture of your life. This gives you a different perspective.
2. Include discussions of ‘problems I’d like to create for myself.’
You might, for example, want to have the problem of which charities you might contribute to when you have $20 million. Talk about this and see how you might tackle this problem. Alternately, you might want the problem of raising a family. Think about what new actions you might want to design to achieve this. Employees should have these conversations with people they trust at first, and then with one another when they can. They should also engage in these conversations with their team leaders and the people above and below them in the organization. When working on a team, ask, “Are we tackling a problem that is worth tackling? Is it inspiring enough? Is it motivating enough?”
3. Build ‘unfocus’ time into your day.
In my book “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try,” I explain why the brain can only take so much focus. It needs unfocused time to put puzzle pieces together and help you see solutions that were not obvious before. By scheduling in two or three 20-minute periods to nap, doodle, walk, or daydream in very specific ways, you will give your brain a chance to be more creative when it’s time to solve problems.
Leave the office. Write it on your calendar if you have to. But I recommend scheduling “tinker time.” Unfocus MUST be scheduled, or we will not make the time for it. If it’s hard for you to find tinker time at work, use the last 15 minutes of your lunch break.
When you realize that your brain is built for you to coexist in the world, you will avoid the damaging effects of too much control. Instead, you will turn to the “sailboat” qualities of the self that will allow you to enjoy this cruise through life.