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The last word on… Dealing with life’s little irritations

Is something or someone trying your patience? You have the power to alter the irksome, says Oliver Burkeman

@PHOTOGRAPH: GETTY IMAGES

Considering the world’s many terrifying crises, it’s striking how much emotional energy we expend on tiny irritations: things like traffic jams, people on trains with leaky headphones or colleagues who talk too loudly. Studies show these so-called ‘background stressors’ can add up, over the years, to chronic stress, even ill health. But why do they infuriate us so much? In short: because humans crave the feeling of control, and these daily annoyances – which we can’t predict or eliminate – are a regular reminder that we lack it. As the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome realised, it’s not the leaky headphones or the chatty co-worker themselves that cause distress, but your ideas about them: in this case, the idea that you ought to be able to make them stop. Fortunately, however, that insight is the first step in learning to find peace with them.

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