Why We Fear

The Finnish author, entrepreneur and trailblazer extraordinaire Henkka Hyppönen’s newest book Why We Fear: Unmasking the emotion that turns us into winners or losers in life and in business (2015, Tammi) takes a deep dive into one of the most powerful F-words of all time: fear. Below are some of the musings this fantastic gem of a book inspired in me.

For a while now, I have beenfear doggy passionate about understanding how humans endure and overcome adversities, and how we sometimes take action against the most unlikely odds. I also seek to understand those brave ones among us who time and again transcend pain, uncertainty and obstacles.

Having witnessed first hand how fear can rob people the chance to live their best lives (and having once been entangled in its powerful grip myself), I’m curious about any clues that may help us better understand its nature. For most people whose life stories I have examined as part of my PhD (which focuses on the psychology of overcoming extreme obstacles; see also sisu), the big changes in their lives have involved reimagining challenges and adversities in a whole new way. On a personal note, learning to transform some of my worst fears into fuel for courage and accepting fear as one of the most natural parts of being human has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.

What’s interesting is that my experience of fear itself, as a psychological and physiological cue, has remained pretty much unchanged. However, my attitude toward fear evolved and that has enabled me to function differently. For all these reasons, and knowing Henkka Hyppönen’s experiences as a public speaker (a profession in which you pretty much can’t help but transform into a superhero-level fear slayer), hearing about his new book piqued my curiosity immediately.

Captain Amygdala
and the Fight for Our Attention

The popular acronym ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ seems to describe
the relationship between our brain and fear in a modern world context pretty aptly (in most parts of the world, that is). For most readers of this blog, there are no saber-toothed tigers lurking in the bushes, and in normal conditions we don’t have to constantly fear for our survival. However, our braScreen Shot 2015-12-23 at 4.48.01 PMin is still the same trigger-happy chunk of fear neurons controlled by Captain Amygdala that it was 60-70 thousand years ago (the amygdala is the tireless emotional processor located on the temporal lobe of the brain. Watch a short video here).

However, most of the threat-triggering cues that the modern individual registers are rather mundane in terms of being actual threats to survival: social situations, imagining potential futures, calculating risks and navigating the social structures of our daily lives. The problem is that, despite being an amazing triumph of evolution, the neuron bundles wobbling between our ears have not quite evolved to intuitively grasp the difference between a menacing angler fish and an ominous look from a boss during a morning meeting (in some cases, however, these two may be indistinguishable from one another). We subconsciously scan our environment for potential threats, and our amygdala lights up from the smallest cues. A ‘brainverbial’ hell breaks loose when the alarms go off and we are left dealing with sensations of anxiety, uncertainty, unsettledness and fear.

angel fish relative to size
Which one is it? A tiny angler fish, or your boss on a bad day? Photograph by Bruce Robison

The Price We Pay for Fear

The book’s original Finnish title translates as ‘The price we pay for fear’. In fact, it might be a useful (and admittedly perhaps scary) exercise to reflect on your past decisions honestly in order to get a sense of how your emotions may have influenced various behaviors and decisions.

What opportunities might you have lost because you didn’t dare to take the first step, call that guy or girl, apply for the job, accept a job offer, sign up for that Ironman or self-defense class? The notable thing is that each and every little decision we make sets in motion an entire cycle of events, and the result of those events is what we call our life.

It matters what we think about things because our thoughts manifest themselves through our actions, and in that way they shape the course of our lives.

Similarly, our fears are not an insignificant matter. At worst they can persuade us to become mere bystanders in our own lives. The good news is that through rather simple exercises we can become aware of our fears as well as other emotions that prime our behavior. All you need is an honest attitude, time for reflection and preferably a pen and some paper to note down your thought process. Inspired by Hyppönen’s book Why We Fear, I set out to examine my own past.

Butterfly effect, exhibit A (shying away)

One of the major moments when I may have missed an opportunity because of fear had to be when I was asked to become a teaching assistant for the new batch of Applied Positive Psychology master’s students at the University of Pennsylvania. The Fears-are-storiesperson asking me to be his TA was none other than Dr. Martin Seligman (or ‘Marty’, as he is fondly known by those at UPenn), one of the most eminent psychologists of our time. Marty proposed this a few times, yet every time I came up with a different excuse.

I bought my own excuses and felt good about my decision ever since. It was only recently, while reading Hyppönen’s book, that I realized I may have in fact turned down Marty’s proposal out of fear of not being good enough. One of the likely onsets for the negative, fearful narrative that eroded my self-esteem and consequently impacted my decision traces back to a moment at the beginning of my first semester at UPenn in 2012. One of my classmates (let’s call her Tactless) made a very insulting remark which left me feeling quite vulnerable and insecure. This encounter made my budding imposter syndrome morph into full-blown insecurity regarding my self-worth and skills.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 5.50.05 PM
Yes, delivering an important message at the University of Helsinki in October 2014.

The experience, however, became one of my most defining moments of self-discovery, as I gained awareness of the fact that we all have an immense power not only to open doors for each other, but also to close them. This systemic nature of all interaction calls us to take responsibility for our actions.

We become the story we tell ourselves, but we are also influenced by the stories people tell us about ourselves.

Face your fear, but also choose your company wisely. (Related: see one of my favorite quotes by fiction novelist William Gibson on the right).

Butterfly effect, exhibit B (taking the chance)

Another example of a moment of huge importance measured with the butterfly-effect-o-meter is from June 2013. I had never given a public speech, and the opportunity to do so presented itself very unexpectedly. My classmate at UPenn was invited to give a workshop at the International World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles. Her original speaking partner canceled shortly before the event, and she proposed that I take her spot. I was excited, and horrified! In many surveys, people often describe public speaking as one of their worst fears. Our fear of standing up and talking in front of a group seems so great that some people indicate they fear it more than death (in surveys at least). It was also one of my worst fears, but that’s kind of why I knew I should explore. Perhaps there’s growth and lessons to be learned in that space.

Saying ‘yes’ to the opportunity came to mark the beginning of what is now one of my primary jobs: being a public speaker. However, to do so—and actually getting up on the stage and not bailing out with the excuse of fake bird flu (yes, the thought crossed my mind)—required me to reach far beyond what I thought I was capable of doing, and to tap into something the Finns like to call sisu.

Seriously, when I got up onto the stage I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, it was more like a fire-breathing dragon-bat, with the wingspan of 2 meters.

However, by the time I was done about 30 or so minutes later, I knew I had found something I that I would love to explore and work on improving. I also met my future PhD advisor and one of my best friends for the first time at the conference. I can’t even bear to imagine an alternative reality in which I would have said no to the opportunity because of fear. Fear of being at a loss for words, of being boring, and of not accepted by my peers.

Again being afraid of not being good enough.

Now, exactly two and a half years and around 40-50 speeches, interviews, and live raTV recordings later, what once caused me to nearly faint has become something I love doing and I often even discover a sense of a flow during the talks. However, like pretty much everything in life, this too is still a process ; )

We are the grand sum of our choices. By facing what scares us the most, as Hyppönen points out, we can develop our character and become stronger and more versatile.

Emilia Lahti at IPPA 2015
Yours truly fearing for her life at the positive psychology world congress on June 29th, 2013. I was probably seeing a nest of angler fish, but the truth is these fellow positive psychology practitioners and researchers were the cutest possible audience.

Get Your Fear-Slayer Suit on!

We are creatures of reason, driven by the instinct to survive and preserve equilibrium. Humans constantly run mental simulations of their current situation and environment, in order to detect opportunities and especially possible threats. When we observe a challenge which appears greater than our perceived resources, it is only rational to back down.

Evolution comes before survival only in the dictionary, as the millions of cells in our bodies each bear witness to the triumph of natural selection and survival.

We are programmed to evolve just enough to ensure survival, and not to evolve any further; evolution occurs only when it is conducive to the continuity of life. However, in order to thrive and evolve, we must also sometimes step into uncertainty and engage in activities which stretch our mental reserves.

Henkka Hyppönen 2
The master fear-slayer himself, Henkka Hyppönen, has a friendly face.

Hyppönen’s book offers a fun and concise dive into the research on fear, along with numerous real-life examples and funny anecdotes from many walks of history. He explores the macro and micro-level corners of fear in a way that, in my opinion, brings the topic within reach for those who may benefit from it most: people who (think they) are too busy to read books on psychology-related topics, even though the information could be a game-changer for them.

I also enjoyed the appendices in the end of the book that included themes such as ‘Causes of fear, ‘Methods for an individual to control and defeat fear’ and ‘The economic effects of fear relating to entrepreneurship.’ I warmly recommend Why We Fear to entrepreneurs, public speakers, teachers, grad students, and really to anyone struggling with personal challenges or just feeling like they need to wo/man-up in the courage department.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. Understanding our behavioral patterns around fear (and the strategies we can deploy when experiencing fear) has the power to help us have more autonomy regarding ‘the making of the future process’. It allows us to think more clearly and make decisions based on reason and intuitive thought, rather than fear and all that nasty angler fish/gremlin stuff.

No one can escape fear, but perhaps by meeting it with the right mindset—with awareness of our underlying strength and adaptability—we can learn to embrace it for what it is, and harness it for the benefit of our future well-being.

What would you do if fear was no obstacle? What challenge would you ‘yes’ to, or what habits, relationships or other things you would say ‘no’ to? Let’s make 2016 the year when we’ll blow our own socks off.

“All things are ready, if your mind be so.”
-William Shakespeare, Henry V

10 thoughts on “Why We Fear

  1. “What would you do if fear was no obstacle?”

    A great question. I might switch a track , take another train :)

    Maybe best would be to think both potential and risks, make careful analysis, listen to ones heart in introspection, and if the light is green, then go on, no matter what.

    That implies, that one needs time and concentration.

    Or, maybe this is just one way to look at it? There could be more straightforward Carpe Diem attitude by just doing it.


    1. I think what you suggest is a great strategy, Hitchiker : ) There is really no one way but yes, I’m also a huge advocate of introspection too. I hope you’ll have an exciting new year. Thank you so much for reading the blog!


  2. I’ve ordered two copies of the book and very much look forward to reading it.

    Does the word “Sisu” have a direct English translation? If not, it makes the concept that much harder to get your arms around…just as the Greeks had no word for “blue”, describing the ocean’s color as being “wine colored”.

    I’m reminded of the work of Nasim Taleb and his book, “Anti-fragile”. The word fragile has no English antonym. Words like sturdy, resilient, and robust are not the opposite of fragile. Why? Those words describe that resistant to fragility, BUT they do not describe things that benefit from fragility. This is why Taleb coined the term and explored it in “Anti-fragile”. He uses Madusa as an example, for each snake cut from Madusa’s head, 2 more instantly grow back. Now that’s anti-fragile!

    My point is that mainstreaming the word, “Sisu”, much like “Anti-fragile”, may introduce richness to a concept that is done disservice in the English language.

    Thanks for your work in articulating this valuable subject!


  3. Hy Emilia!
    Very interesting argument, absolutely.
    I heard about your work through Singularity University (social network) where I have been a couple of years ago and I missed these kind of conversation when I was there, definetly ;-)

    I consider “fear” a very important feeling and not complitely a bad one or, sometimes, the more worthy because is the real one we feel when we get closer to the limits, expecially, our own ones.

    For many years I skied with a blind skier, we made competition in Giant and SGiant and I was his guide for training and races. I had to re-consider all my concept of trust…
    At SU my “unconference” title was: “Blind Trust: Can we address people passion trends?”
    The meaning was, how can we teach or stimulate people to face their limit and try to go a step forward in a “kind” of safe/positive way?? Does fear stuck us or can we listen to it considering as an healthy “friend” that help us to go back and forward from our limits? Is it possible?? Can we organized a structural method that help people to evolve themselves, stimulating innovation and creativity?
    If we are not able to question ourself how we could be able to question something else?!

    In the last years I started studying Emotional intelligence and I’m trying to define a sort of process to be applied in companies. Some of SU Alumni from SU Milan chapter are very interested and we will meet soon to share our ideas.

    If you come to south Europe let me know and I’ll find the way to attend at your conference!

    Thank you so much for the inspiration.

    PS. Tomorrow I’m leaving to Kiruna to watch Aurora. Wild nature is the best way for human being to relate to his limit in a positive way or…I guess so! ;-)


  4. Beautiful intelligent article Emilia, I felt a tension in the heart space half way through it then it opened again. I love how you mention how mundane events or traumatic moments can actually impact and create FEAR, or any other emotions actually and how we should be more aware and care full about our inner conversations and the words we used. Thank you


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