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    Something to Think About: The Gift of Minor Irritations

a young woman in a restaurant annoyed and irritated about her order, complaining to the waiter

Dear friend,

Our home recently had an unwelcome visitor—a mouse. Let’s call him Mr. Mousey. Mr. Mousey left his mark—his droppings—all over the dwelling, putting our entire family on alert. We went on a cleaning rampage, setting up traps to catch him before he could invade the pantry. We finally caught Mr. Mousey and escorted him out. During the two days he stayed at our home, we forgot that many parts of the world were still at war, communicable diseases were spreading, and floods were threatening a town.

Problems have a way of focusing the brain. The better defined the problem, the easier it is for us to focus. The most difficult problems, however, are often complex. The finiteness of all of us, the uncertainty of the future, countries at war, poverty, world hunger, our vulnerability to suffering—these are big, unsolvable problems. If a mind gets mired in these, it can’t find an easy escape. Maybe our daily small problems, which keep us busy and are much better defined and more easily solved, are a good distraction. The small problems fill our very limited attention.

The human attention capacity is constrained by the processing ability of our conscious mind, estimated at 120 bits per second. One person talking to you takes up about 60 bits. Thus, you can barely listen to the demands of your child while planning the day with your partner. This might explain why grocery shopping with three young kids is unlikely to be a fun experience.

While this processing limit predisposes us to mental fatigue from the information overload we face (the world has already produced over 300 exabytes of data), it might serve us well by limiting our ability to process hurts. When we are buried in small problems, we don’t have the bandwidth to think about bigger, less defined, relatively unsolvable problems.

The problem is the separation between the current perceived situation and the desired situation. Because we are vulnerable to mortality, that separation will exist, so we will forever be solving problems. A healthy mind-set toward problems might help.

I should look at little solvable problems as gifts—they prevent me from getting overwhelmed by bigger unsolvable problems. I should accept the bigger, poorly defined, relatively unsolvable problems even as we collectively try to address them. When viewed with a mature perspective, my problems, instead of remaining problems, might become stepping stones toward deeper meaning.

May the problems you face today be simple and solvable; may each problem steer you toward your life’s deeper meaning.

Take care.


Dr. Sood 2

Read The Gift of Minor Irritations and previous blog posts.
Also, follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.

Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.