How To Fight Anxiety

Alan Watts, Mark Manson & Louis C.K. on The Backwards Law

Niklas Göke
6 min readOct 13, 2017


We spend all of our waking hours chasing goals. More money, more leisure, more everything. In doing so myself, I recently stumbled upon an insight that stopped me in my tracks.

In 1951, Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity:

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”

But isn’t that all we do? Struggle to stay afloat? We set goals we think will make us happy, then we dive in. And so we sink. A lot. Back then, Watts said about the book:

“It is written in the conviction that no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”

If Watts thought 1951 was uncertain, I wonder what he’d say in 2017. The book’s subtitle, ‘A Message for an Age of Anxiety,’ may be even more appropriate today than it was when it came out.

Watts’s message sounds gloomy, but reveals valuable lessons, if we dare to look closer.

Setting Goals Makes You Sad…

All is well, you go to work, live your life and nothing too crazy happens. That’s baseline happiness, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, he explains that no matter how far we deviate from this baseline level, we always regress back to the mean:

“We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”



Niklas Göke

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. Read my daily blog here: