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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


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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