“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1789. Death doesn’t bother me much, but I still struggle with the urge to avoid doing my taxes. The ultimate penalty for avoiding taxes is prison. The penalty for growing the list of things we avoid is a prison of our own making.
Second Hand Stress
One year around tax time I heard my partner wailing in primal pain. My stomach knotted. I didn’t know whether she had injured herself or learned of the death of…who…her father, a sibling, her closest friend?
I went downstairs to deal with the crisis. The floor was carpeted wall to wall with paper. She was seated at her computer, clicking the mouse repeatedly as though if she clicked it enough something would change.
“I HATE THIS!”
That was the year I took over doing her taxes. It had been a long time coming. Stress had entered our relationship every year as tax day approached.
The Dreaded Letter
Last year I received the dreaded letter from the IRS. Because I work from home, I had been randomly selected as the lucky recipient of a two-day in-home audit! It was as exciting as winning the lottery, but not in a good way.
People I shared the news with tried to be reassuring, but I wasn’t reassured.
I kept okay records, and I wasn’t willfully dishonest, but the prospect of digging up every document for the tax year in question didn’t thrill me. Having a representative of the federal government in my home for two days seemed an egregious invasion of privacy.
I can come up with a laundry list of reasons to avoid doing my taxes, but we all have things we try to avoid. The deeper we sink into depression, the longer that list grows.
A quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
The most disquieting thing about doing my taxes is that doing them is never as disquieting as I imagine it will be. I have never run into a situation that I couldn’t handle: including the two-day in-home audit, which I was able to successfully resolve without paying an additional penny in taxes.
This year it took me less than an hour per return to run the numbers through the software. So, the bigger question is, what’s going on in the reality distortion field of my brain that makes it such a struggle?
Three Ingredients for Struggle
The authors of the original mindfulness manual point to three states of mind that set us up for struggle. Greed, hatred, and delusion.
Greed is the inclination to get or keep only things we want. Hatred is the inclination to avoid or get rid of things we don’t want. Delusion is the belief that getting only the things we want and avoiding the things we don’t want will make us happy.
At first glance, it seems that getting the things we want and avoiding the things we don’t is a sound strategy for happiness, so what makes it delusional?
Struggle and Taxes
I’m inclined to hold on to my money.
I’d like to avoid filing my tax return.
Am I deluded to think that holding onto my money and avoiding filing my return will make me happy?
I’ve never been in the top earnings bracket. My tax rate has never felt disproportionately onerous. Unless I decided to leave my home and go off the grid, not filing would lead to some uncomfortable encounters with government agents. It’s unlikely that in this scenario keeping and avoiding would make me happier.
Three Ingredients for Well-Being
If I view the situation through the lens of well-being, letting go of clinging and avoidance makes the actual task of filing taxes an ordinary stress that’s much easier to cope with.
Writing a check is both a byproduct of my ability to work productively and helps pay for the infrastructure that makes that productive, fruitful work possible.
It’s a way to contribute to my community.
The Slippery Delusion Slope
In the post “The Evolution of Social Anxiety,” we explored the reasons the brain came to overestimate the importance of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Today, this survival strategy can imprison us by shrinking our comfort zone.
I might start out with the idea to go grab a bite to eat with a friend after work. If I feel tired at the end of my workday, my mind starts to invent scenarios about traffic and parking. There will probably be a wait at the restaurant. Didn’t someone say the food at that place isn’t as good as it used to be? The last time my friend and I got together, he complained a lot about work. Wouldn’t it be easier to grab something at a drive-thru and watch Netflix? I text my friend to cancel (too much effort to call). People on TV are much easier than friends. They’re prettier and smarter, I see them more often. If they’re boring, I can turn them off.
The more often we give in to avoiding beneficial activities because they might be a little stressful, the more we lower our threshold for coping with stress. With enough practice, our brains may one day tell us it takes too much effort to get out of bed.
Ten Minute Exercise
It’s counter-intuitive to suggest that if we get the things we want and avoid the things we don’t we won’t necessarily be happy. In order to prove it to ourselves, we need to practice catching these inclinations in action.
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight so that you can remain fairly still.
4. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel right now.
5. Take a few deep breaths, breathe normally, and rest your attention on the breath and wait for a thought to arise.
5. When a thought arises, pay close attention to your state of mind.
- Is this something that you want?
- Notice how this feels.
- Is this something that you don’t want?
- Notice how this feels.
- Is this something you have no inclination toward or against?
- Notice how this feels.
6. If there’s an inclination, note the feeling when the inclination subsides.
7. Return attention to the breath until the next thought arises.
8. When the timer sounds, take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.
Field Study Observations:
As you go through your day, try to observe whether others are acting out of wanting or avoiding? Are they checking their smartphones because it’s something they want or are they avoiding the world around them? Do they seem happy?
When you notice you want something? Do you notice what prompted it?
When you notice you’re avoiding something? Do you notice what prompted that?
How do you feel when you’re focused on what you’re doing versus wanting or avoiding something?
The more we train our brain to recognize what makes us struggle, the less we find ourselves struggling.
Watch The Struggle Switch cartoon (3:02)
Read Leo Babauta’s 10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do