The self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh that traditionally dim our January days are nearly behind us. Alcohol fasts and “Veganuary” are so medieval, the stuff of monks and ascetics, yet every new year we’re implored to deny and deny, to atone for our festive appetites. So much for the flesh, but what of our souls? What’s the equivalent of a bean-and-kale bake for the brain?
You might be urged to traipse around the lawn in bare feet, stroke an animal or learn a few bird calls but, frankly, this is feeble given the state of the world today. Globally and locally, the term cataclysm doesn’t even come close. I’ve chosen two books that will help to navigate a way through this baleful new year.
One is a practical guide to managing stress and the other is a more philosophical take on risks and opportunities and how to pilot through uncertainty. Noa Belling is a best-selling author, psychotherapist, and corporate consultant who works all over the world but is based in Constantia. Her new book is Stress Less: Managing Anxiety in a Modern World.
We can barely lift our heads with the burdens South Africa is carrying, and with elections looming it promises to be a troubled year. Against the greater background of war, climate change, and destructive AI, not to mention the threat of another pandemic or nuclear holocaust, we may feel crushed by stress. Belling points out that humans may never be able to get rid of stress and anxiety, as these are part of our wiring for survival. So, we might as well become better at living with them. Turning towards our feelings instead of resisting or suppressing them will gradually grow our ability to tolerate them.
In comprehensive and straight-forward chapters, she shows us how to do this, setting out explanations for stress and anxiety, both physical and psychological, and presenting toolkits for taking control. Much of the work is inward, such as “Name it to tame it” —recognising and naming our experience to bring the prefrontal cortex back in line and relax the anxious freeze response.
There is much information on breathing properly, which is vital in managing stress and living healthily, and on outward actions, such as practising compassion and creating meaning and purpose in our lives. She quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. “If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
There are too many quick fixes in the wellbeing world, which can turn out to be a vale of empty promises and unattainable ideals. Belling’s suggestions seem sensible and attainable. Morgan Housel believes that if we want to understand our rapidly changing world, we need to consider what stays the same, over decades and even centuries, turning the hindsight of history into foresight.
Same as Ever is subtitled Timeless Lessons on Risk, Opportunity, and Living a Good Life and plays out in 20-odd stories about the ways in which life, behaviour, and business will always be the same. Life may be erratic, but there are some things we can count on. He invites us to look back 500 years and forward 500 years — while technology and medicine look very different and the world order somewhat strange, people behave as they have always done. Their vanities and mistakes, hopes and dreams, are very familiar to us. “Same as ever,” we could say.
As an example, Jeff Bezos has said it is impossible to imagine a future where Amazon customers don’t want low prices and fast shipping — so he can safely invest heavily in those things. While Housel can’t forecast the stock market, he’s confident about people’s predisposition to greed and fear, which never changes, so he’d work that into his investment plan. He has no idea who will win the next presidential election but is well aware of “people’s attachment to tribal identities, which is the same today as it was a thousand years ago and will be a thousand years from now”.
He doesn’t know what businesses will dominate the coming decade, but he knows that business leaders generally let success go to their heads and lose their edge, so he’d invest accordingly. Packed with entertaining anecdotes and thought-provoking observations, this is an easy guide to some useful universal truths.
• From the February edition of Wanted, 2024.