Friday, November 6, 2009

Stress as a Choice

It is not uncommon, just about everywhere, to hear people talk about how stressed they are. This usually stems from having too much to do and not enough time to do it, and manifests itself as a self-fulfilling inability to actually be productive. While stress certainly has external contributors, I believe that it is, at its heart, a personal decision about how to respond to those external contributors. Without going into psychology or trying to dissect that, I think it's fair to point out that there are many people who feel overwhelming stress when they have fairly little work to do, while others skate by whistling and smiling despite working almost non-stop.

Choosing stress, however, does not strike me as a conscious decision. Few people would say: "Oh good, I have enough to do now that I can start feeling stressed about it." Granted, there are certainly people who need the threat of a looming deadline in order to actually complete a task (similar to the people who need the threat of a torturous afterlife in order to be moral?), but that, I feel, is a different kind of stress than the crippling, miserable, and unhealthy stress that is so prevalent. Indeed, I might call a deadline motivation, and while you might say that's just the same thing as stress, I would say, in response, that that is my point. The words we choose to describe a similar phenomenon tell us a lot about our intellectual habits.

What is the original of this choice, then? Why do so many people choose stress? Being unconscious, I suspect that stress is a habit started very early in life. Children who have stressed parents are probably quick to learn stress themselves, and are likely to respond in concert. Add to that our achievement-driven academic system - which rewards neither intelligence nor effort, really - and you have children at every tier of the system terrified about how they are possibly going to succeed (and out-compete their friends). "That's life," you may say, but that again is exactly the point: we choose a stressful world, and impose it upon ourselves and our children.

I firmly believe that too much work gets done in the world (that's a post for another time), I think it is even more troubling that so much time is spent worried about getting work done. There is something backwards about a culture that is more concerned with what it does and how it is to do those things than why. Choosing stress is about forgetting why, if not personally, then societally. Of course, the widespread epidemic of stress in the world - especially in Western countries - is probably a symptom of an unexamined why. If purposelessness breeds stress and frustration, it is no wonder a culture built upon profit is rife with them.

That's probably also a post for another time. Meanwhile, I don't think there's a need to delve too deeply into the cosmic - or at least cultural - sources of stress. More important is the personal decision, which is tied so closely to personal habits and expectations. I have seen people who respond to mountains of work as a fun challenge to be overcome - even when that work is not ostensibly engaging - which seems to me a better choice.

Call that attitude "life as a game," where there is always fun to be had in almost any effort, if you make that choice. Sometimes that might involve a good deal of fantasy; sometimes, perhaps, too much. But we already know what too much stress looks like.

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