Feeling stressed about the election? It’s not your imagination

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Look away, America. For your own good, look away. Everything will still be there when you come back. Even once the vote counting’s done, there’ll be the recounting, and the tag-along lawsuits.

So take a walk, take a breath, take a break from the election drama unspooling at a pace better suited to a garden slug than an advanced nation’s sophisticated vote-counting system. So, psychologists say, maybe you should get off the smartphone, get back to work, and get some perspective. Though weighty issues like climate change, the economy, and the COVID pandemic also are on the table, the science of “affective forecasting” assures us that we’re lousy judges of our own future emotions on such matters.

“One of the things that happens with uncertainty is we often don’t think realistically about the outcome, and we tend to think catastrophically. So, you’re already thinking that if your candidate loses it’s going to be awful, it’s going to be unbearable, it’ll be disastrous,” said psychologist Shelley Carson, a lecturer at the Harvard Extension School and associate of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Psychology Department. “We overestimate how this event — or any event — is going to affect our happiness in the future.”

Carson said she normally views the U.S. as a pretty stable nation, one whose national character readily absorbs the ups and downs that make history. But she and Jacqueline Sperling, instructor in psychology in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, said that these times are not normal and, if anxiety were measured as a disease, the election worries would compound and aggravate the existing concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lost jobs.

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