Happiness Hack #4: Defining, Interrogating and Overcoming Fear

This blog post is all about overcoming fear (with a personal example from the lowest point of my life in 2016, and a journal exercise that changed the life of bestselling author, speaker, investor and podcaster Tim Ferriss)

Fear can be healthy. Fear can keep us alive.

Fear can also ground us, prevent us from doing the things we most need to do. Learning to deal with the fear effectively – feeling the fear and doing it anyway, as the title of Susan Jeffers’s classic book went – is a gateway to personal satisfaction and happiness.

I’m going to stick with money for the example here, but this can equally apply to whatever is your greatest fear in life.

October 2016 was a time when it felt like everything was falling down around me. I walked out of a job that was very far away from my values. (I didn’t know this at the time, as I had never taken the steps to define my values). There were days when I could hardly get out of bed.

At the back of everything were my fears around money. That I was now finally unable to provide for my family, the fears that had dogged me for years – that I was a fraud, that I was an imposter, that I would eventually be shown to everyone as the complete inadequate I had always felt myself to be – were becoming reality.

I’m not sure how or why it happened, but I vividly recalling sitting with a pint of Guinness, a pen and a notebook in a local country pub, and setting out my fears around money in depth and at length.

I analysed everything – present concerns such as bills and groceries and utilities, and future, less tangible but no less real concerns like retirement and quality of life and education funds for our two young children.

After about an hour and a half, I came up with a number.

It was a number: annual earnings required, in euros. The number might have scared the living daylights out of me as it was far in excess of anything I had ever earned in my life.

But it was a specific number, and specificity and definition are, I’ve found a perfect antidote to fear.

The old horror masters knew. They knew that the essence of terror was in the imagination, and once you show the beast on screen, the beast by some marvel of the human mind becomes much less terrifying. Keep it out of shot for as long as possible, though, and the audience will generate its own fear.

So it was for me.

Defining the fear, getting really specific about it, makes the fear dissipate.

When the fear dissipates, great things become possible.

(Those great things, of course, generate their own fears. But fear is innate. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to overcome it and prevent it from holding us hostage all our lives.)


Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author, speaker, podcaster and bipolar depressive, talks about an exercise he calls fear-setting, which he says has completely changed his life over the past 15 years and has helped him to get through 50+ major depressive episodes.

It is related to the philosophy of stoicism and includes exercises to separate controllables from uncontrollables. Fear-setting is a written exercise he uses whenever he is faced with a decision that is making him fearful or anxious.

It consists of a 3-pages journal exercise about the thing he’s putting off or is somehow anxious or fearful of.

Page 1: What if I…?

Ferriss’s personal example question was: “What if I stepped away from my business for one month?”, and beneath that he wrote a list of things he was fearful of happening if he took that step.

So this part of the exercise is:

  • Define the list of things you are afraid of happening if you take the step you’re fearful of.
  • What could you do now to prevent each thing from happening?
  • If the worst happened, what would it take to repair that thing afterwards?

Page 2: What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success?

If you attempted whatever you’re considering, what might the upsides be?

What skills might you learn? What experiences might you experience? What memories might you create? What relationships might you build?

Page 3: What might be the cost of inaction?

The costs might be emotional, mental, physical, financial or spiritual.

Three columns:

  • Six months from now
  • 1 year from now
  • 3 years from now

People, says Ferriss, are very good at considering what might go wrong if we try something new, but we don’t often consider the cost of the status quo.

So the question is, “If I avoid this action or decision, what might my life look like in six months to three years?”

Tim Ferriss’s Conclusion

It is an exercise that takes possibly 1-2 hours, and Ferriss says it was life-changing for him. He can trace all his biggest wins (plus all his biggest “disasters averted”) back to the fear-setting exercise, which he does at least once a quarter.

You will find, he says, that some of your fears are very well-founded. But crucially, you should not conclude that without first putting them under the microscope.

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