One Nation Under Stress?

Yves here. It’s frustrating to see an article start to get to the essence of a major issue and then pull up short. Here, author Dana Becker discusses how discussions of and suggested remedies for stress typically look only at immediate conditions and not underlying, societal drivers. Presumably, Becker gives a more comprehensive treatment in her book, so perhaps I am being unfair. However, this discussion gives the strong impression that she has utterly overlooked the biggest force changing the structure of advanced societies, the march of neoliberalism. It greatly widened inequality and that has negative health outcomes. We cited this section of a Financial Times article by Michael Prowse in the very early days of this website, and it appears it can’t be repeated often enough:

But recent epidemiological research suggests that finance ministers, too, may some day be required to issue health warnings. There are good reasons to believe that policies that promote greater economic inequality – such as budgets that slash top tax rates – cause higher rates of sickness and mortality….

In Britain, these new arguments are most closely associated with Richard Wilkinson, a professor at Nottingham University’s medical school. Wilkinson has spent much of the past two decades painstakingly assembling the evidence for a link between inequality and sickness. But researchers elsewhere, such as Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce Kennedy of the School of Public Health at Harvard University, have independently confirmed many of his claims.

Those who would deny a link between health and inequality must first grapple with the following paradox. There is a strong relationship between income and health within countries. In any nation you will find that people on high incomes tend to live longer and have fewer chronic illnesses than people on low incomes.

Yet, if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries….

Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts. Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people’s sense of control and by low levels of civic participation….

Unequal societies, in other words, will remain unhealthy societies – and also unhappy societies – no matter how wealthy they become. Their advocates – those who see no reason whatever to curb ever-widening income differentials – have a lot of explaining to do.

Social stratification increases stress because it becomes more important to hang onto your rung on the economic ladder than in a more equal system. A hit to income often times means moving (at a minimum out of your house and thus probably your school district) and giving up activities at your level (less expensive restaurants, no more ski trips, less use of hired help, fewer or no charity functions). That makes it stressful or impossible to mix with former “friends”. Further down the food chain, a loss of income can lead to a scramble to meet expenses, bankruptcy, or even homelessness. And in a neoliberal society that has encouraged employers to treat employees as disposable and where job tenures are short, even people with high incomes can be savings poor and vulnerable to shocks.

I’m also skeptical of her view that working long hours at the office is a macho display, “like felling trees or killing bear in pioneer days.”  Help me. Plenty of women invest heavily in careers.  At least for professionals, the dirty truth is that as messy as office life is, many find it more rewarding that dealing with their families. They hang out with colleagues who are often from similar backgrounds, get to travel on the company dime, and are distracted from things like disobedient kids, budget stresses, and home repairs.

By Dana Becker, Research Professor Emerita at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Her latest book is . Originally published at openDemocracy

brought my 81-year-old husband home from the hospital on Thursday. He had suffered a mild heart attack in March. This time he was in the hospital for three days and no one could figure out what was wrong. At home the next morning, he had symptoms identical to those he had had the day we had left for the Emergency Room. I, on the other hand, felt worse; my throat was scratchy and that night I developed a fever. Since we moved from Philadelphia to Ann Arbor following my 96-year-old mother’s stroke last year, my husband has been depending on me more and I have assumed the role of my mother’s sole decision-maker and advocate. As I coughed and tossed at night I tried not to think about the great unravelling that might occur if I became really sick, or even died.

Was I ‘stressed out’ in the vernacular of our time? I suppose the answer is yes. It is customary these days to describe reactions to difficult situations this way. We now rely on stress to explain the effects of everything from war to too much mail in our inbox. From 1970 to 1980, there were over 2,000 academic publications with stress in the title; from 2000 to 2010 there were over 21,000. As the historian Charles Rosenberg has pointed out, since the advent of industrialism Americans have had various ways of explaining the relationship between the fast pace of life and disease, a story of progress and pathology. Stress is now at the center of those explanations. Biomedical research focuses on the impact of stress on the immune system even though there is as yet no solid evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

When the eighteenth-century philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to America he praised American individualism, but he also expressed the fear that eventually Americans might come to believe that “their whole destiny is in their own hands.” Many of us seem to have swallowed that belief along with our kale smoothies. In 1980, the political economist Robert Crawford coined the term “healthism” to describe how, for the middle classes, maintaining their health was fast becoming a universal responsibility and an overarching moral value.

In the decades since, stress has been considered a chief adversary in the fight to stay healthy, and everything from cancer to too much texting is deemed stressful. This has been a boon for advertisers and self-help gurus. ‘Relax, buy a massage chair, eat better, focus on your breath and buy a pastel yoga mat.’ The commodification of stress comfortably molds itself to capitalism, and the emphasis on individual solutions to social and political problems fits conveniently with an historical attachment to American individualism and its twentieth-century shape-shifting cousin, self-actualization.

In my book, One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, I have defined stressism as the “belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means.” By focusing on the stress we ‘feel,’ we train our attention on how to ‘de-stress’ at the expense of examining and trying to transform the underlying conditions that cause us to experience stress in the first place.

In this way stress serves a malign social purpose. Once I say that I’m ‘stressed’, I’m advised to meditate or take a walk or light aromatic candles or steep in a bubble bath. Any of these, of course, could certainly make me feel better in the short run, and I’m not suggesting we stop trying to take care of ourselves if we have the time and means to do so, but these are superficial remedies to deep-rooted structural problems.

When psychologists consistently describe poverty as stressful, they encourage interventions at the level of the individual. As Andrew Solomon proposed in the New York Times magazine some years back, since poverty is depressing and many poor people are depressed, why not just treat poor people for depression? In our therapeutic culture, at a time when many problems of living are defined as mental illnesses, it is not surprising that problems like poverty is are medicalized in this way. Poverty can certainly be depressing, but antidepressants are no remedy for poverty.

Another example of how our current focus on stress obscures the social conditions that produce it is revealed when we consider how discussions of working mothers’ stress inevitably raise the need for the ever-elusive ‘work/family balance.’ Such balance is deemed essential if women are to avoid screaming at their children or denying sex to their partners. ‘Take care of yourself and deal with your stress so you can continue to care for others’ is the message that began to emerge in the 1980s when middle-class white women joined the workforce in ever larger numbers.

This was a period when the tropes of ‘Superwoman ‘and ‘Supermom’ were the order of the day. Talk of women and stress boiled over in 1990s when women’s magazines were full of articles warning that attempts to ‘juggle’ or ‘balance’ the demands of home and work were apt to wreck women’s physical and/or mental health unless they ‘managed their stress.’

Apart from an occasional reference to the need for ‘family-friendly’ workplace policies, such discussions failed to describe the social forces that bore down on women who tried to ‘have it all’, forces that included – and still include – the gendered nature of caregiving and the phallocentric nature of the workplace. And of course, although poor women have been working outside the home for centuries, their ‘stress’ has been systematically neglected as a subject of public interest.

Joan Williams, the director of the Center for Worklife Law, has pointed out how today’s white-collar workplace is still tailored for the ‘ideal’ (male) worker who has a wife handling domestic life and its backstage dramas, and historian Michael Kimmel has suggested that, for men, putting in maximum hours at the office is the contemporary analog of felling trees and killing bears in pioneer days. Overwork is the new macho activity, and if women are ‘stressed out’ in trying to manage expanding workplace expectations on top of the twenty-first century demands of intensive parenting, they had better find quick ways of relieving it so as not to disturb the status quo.

A central problem with these discussions of work/life balance is that they place ‘work’ and ‘life’ on opposing sides of the scale, and women in their destined position at the fulcrum. The ‘stress’ experienced in working families of all socioeconomic groups would be greatly alleviated if care-giving were valued in moral, political and economic terms. This kind of valuation would direct policy so that responsibility for care of the young, the elderly and the disabled, now assumed primarily by women, would be properly supported.

The restructuring of the workplace would enable a level of ‘work/life balance’ for families that can now only be dreamt of, at least in the United States. Paid family leave would no longer be a figment of the popular imagination. Care workers would earn higher wages, making it possible to hope that there might be enough paid caregivers to serve the growing number of elderly people who will need them.

The idea of stress offers one way of talking about our vulnerability, but it doesn’t help us do much more than moan about middle-class pressures and grasp at temporary solutions. It offers ballast to the status quo and keeps us as a society from undertaking the potentially more destabilizing work of structural social change that is needed in order to reduce the human distress that is created by adverse social conditions.

What if, as a society we adopted the idea of universal vulnerability, which the legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman defines as “an enduring aspect of the human condition that must be at the heart of social and state responsibility?” Embracing this principle would necessarily limit our efforts to re-engineer ourselves at the expense of truly altering the fabric of society.

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62 comments

  1. kk

    If it were proved conclusively that the happiest and healthiest society possible would come about by redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor – would Americans vote for it, would the rich agree, would it ever happen?

    Reply
    1. Ember Brody

      Americans aren’t going to change their minds just because of silly old science. See climate change, gun control, death penalty, prison-for-profits, 21st century Jim Crow, constant war, Alex Jones. And that’s just off the top of my head.

      The Anti-intellectualism in American Life has long been written about. Anti-intellectualism allied with extreme individualism/greed-is-good is literally deadly.

      Reply
    2. Geo

      “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

      – A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

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      1. Lambert Strether

        Or socialism didn’t take root in American because the workers who would have had to fight it — in particular, German immigrants — had already fought the Civil War to destroy the Slave Power and didn’t have the heart, only ten or twenty years later, for a battle on that scale a second time. Because that’s what it would have taken. As it was, there was plenty of action.

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        1. Susan the other`

          I think primarily because they had left Europe in the wake of the 1848 uprisings. Or a few decades before that when the writing was on the wall. The labor v. capital battles here in the 1880s, 90s and the early 1900s were not unjoined – all those immigrants did back the justice of labor’s cause. I always felt that socialism was a vacuous, diluted and verbose field of study that always came to virtually pointless conclusions. That was in the 60s and 70s. I’m changing my tune now that everybody is finally spitting it out. Love this part, and this post.

          Reply
  2. Bugs Bunny

    Apart from the constant stress of being middle-aged and worrying about never being able to find another job if I lost my current one, there’s also the constant stress outside the workplace of aggression and mistrust by fellow human beings in public.

    Just trying to do my shopping, attend an event or simply walking in the park can lead to a confrontation with rude, nasty people. This constant low level stress makes it very difficult to even exchange pleasantries with strangers.

    One comment on the essay above – “phallocentric workplace”? If the author means that men still dominate in the workplace, outside the C suites (and that’s radically changed as well) that’s just not the case. And the idea of sex with co-workers, male, female or otherwise has completely disappeared. But that’s just my experience in the white collar consulting world so I may be completely wrong about other workplaces.

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    1. PlutoniumKun

      You make a very good point about the impact of everyday confrontations. For some reason I’ve never fully understood, some places have an aura of anger about them – you are always expecting someone to react badly to the slightest misdemeanour and this makes everyone suspicious and on edge – while other places just feel ‘happy’ for chilled for want of a better word. It obviously can’t be entirely related to poverty and inequality – some of the places I can think of like that are definitely areas suffering economically, but others aren’t, I can also think of downtrodden, poor areas where people are invariably wonderfully friendly and open. So while yes, capitalism and inequality and all these things have an impact, there is also a cultural element – think of the difference in walking a typical street in China and Japan.

      It does show the importance of just being kind and courteous in daily life, it genuinely does make a difference to other people.

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      1. Geo

        I’ve been told by a number of foreigners that America has an aura of anger about it unlike wherever they may have been visiting from.

        Years ago a homeless man I’d befriended was telling me about his day. He’d spent much of the afternoon at the park watching the dogs in the “dog run” area. He remarked how, no matter where they came from or what their kind, they all played and mingled together without judgement. It made him happy to watch them and wish we could learn to see each other like the dogs do.

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        1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

          I got that aura of anger recently while on a rush visit to England due to my Mother being taken seriously ill & the question being asked of ” If, shall we resucitate “. To be fair the whole visit was accompanied by constant torrential rain & I was pretty stressed as it was all a rush.

          I inadvertantly got lost on the M56 coming out of Manchester airport which was horrifying, particularly as nearly everybody was it seems intent on driving like canned lemmings despite the road having the appearance of a lake. I am not a slow driver but was constantly tailgated for the whole visit, except where everyone slowed to a crawl for speed cameras, followed by reverting to Wacky races.

          Most people I came across either looked haunted or angry with the exception of the NHS staff who were looking after my Mother, who in turn were under duress due to the hospital recovering from being hacked. I left plenty of time for my flight but ended up only just making it because of the overstretched cattle market that is Manchester airport, particularly the security shambles in which due to the slowness of the whole process has led to flights being called out so they can move people to the front.

          My old home market town continues to degenerate, the latest eyesore being a huge unfinished block of student accommodation right in it’s centre of which the developer is now doing time. This is opposite the brand new plush civic offices being one of those building which has nothing at all in common with it’s environment, stands in the place of something that did & would not be at home anywhere, except perhaps the likes of Dubai. Empty shops or for the most part charity & pound & basically nothing like the bustling place it once was.

          I was very glad to get back to the place that many English people warned me not to go to – although of course Brexit looms.

          BTW – Mum is now doing as well as can be expected by defying the doctors yet again & unlike you in the US, as yet still no massive bill.

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            I’m glad to hear your mum is ok, I know this is a stressful situation, I wish you the best with it.

            As you say, driving really brings it out in people – I found driving anywhere in the south of England monstrously stressful. There is a real aggression in the driving I don’t experience in Ireland (here, its just incompetence and carelessness you have to be wary of). On my last trip to the north of England there was a sudden blizzard at night when I driving over the Dales – I was in a rental hire car going what I felt was a safe and sensible speed and I was shocked at how many people overtook me on country roads at speed, it was just insanely aggressive and in the circumstances, really stupid.

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            1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

              My late wife had friends in Rayleigh Essex we often visited in the 80’s. There is a dual carriageway whose number I forget which is the main road for commuters from London to that part of the world. We drove it once during the evening commute & then made a pact to never do it again – much worse than the M25 which was then bad enough & I hate to think what it is like now.

              Just West of Mullingar about 20 years ago I once got stuck behind a neighbour driving along a winding road just wide enough to drive a car down. An old farmer originally from Connemara transplanted to Westmeath who as I later discovered used this road as a rat run ( stroll ( to drive a couple of miles home from a local hotel / bar restaurant in the wee small hours at about 5 mph. It was a well known long term practice to the locals, regular as clockwork & apparently he had never passed a driving test.

              He was a jovial character & I don’t think he had any concept of stress.

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        2. Watt4Bob

          Over the course of the last thirty years or so I’ve noticed an incredible rise in angry drivers on our streets and highways.

          I’m sure I’ve mentioned the side effects of having driven a taxi for many years, one of which is being more fully aware of our country’s demographics. I currently do a fair amount of driving for work.

          With that in mind, I can say with some confidence that it is the middle class that I see driving around in a huff, if not a distracted rage.

          It’s clear these angry drivers think that things would be better if everyone else would just get out of their way.

          And yes, I think many of them are bedeviled by that ache in the back of their head that comes from feeling that their problems are their own fault, that they’ve made the wrong choices, or spent their money foolishly and so caused their own precarious condition, which just might get better if they only made a few more phone calls, or drove a little faster to ‘make-up-some-time’.

          As opposed to understanding that they’re being swindled, and humiliated by a heartless system built on greed and avarice.

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          1. festoonic2

            The state of the nation is visible in the way people behave when cloaked in semi-anonymity behind the wheels of machines capable of inflicting fear, injury, or death on others. It isn’t pretty now and it’s only going to get far, far worse because, while there are plenty of guns in the US, there are many more cars.

            Reply
          2. eg

            “Another working day has ended.
            Only the rush hour hell to face.
            Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.
            Contestants in a suicidal race.
            Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance,
            He knows that something somewhere has to break.”

            Synchronicity II

            Reply
        3. PlutoniumKun

          I cycle tour a lot, and that exposes you a lot to peoples moods – people can be incredibly curious and open, but also you can end up as the focus of random anger, usually by drivers who just resent your presence for one reason or another. In the UK, there is definitely a ‘north to south’ thing – the further south you go, the more anger you can feel, even in prosperous communities. Sometimes its someone shouting random insults from an open window, sometimes its a car ‘accidentally’ driving too close.

          I felt the same cycling down the spine of the US – much as I met some very nice people in Montana and Alberta, I always felt a sort of anger and chill, which seemed to gradually lift as I got to Colorado. North of Colorado, with just one exception the friendly people who would stop for a chat or hand over a bottle of water were always Native Americans (usually to warn about bears ahead!). But in Colorado and northern NM I met many great people, open and friendly, although there were some notorious places where I’d been warned in advance to not camp, or ask for water, and expect a nice welcome – I just avoided them.

          As I said above, there is certainly a ‘stress’ element to it – communities under stress are rarely friendly. In the Himalaya, Tibetan communities are entirely different depending on which side of the Chinese border you are on. In China people are suspicious, kids are vicious, dogs are let loose. Cross the border to Ladakh and people are chilled and friendly without being in your face about it.

          But then again, I’ve been to Bhutan, famous as the country that invented the happiness index, and puts preventing inequality central to its policies. But I have to say that much as I loved the country and admired its policies, there was a definite negative ‘vibe’ in many parts, something I couldn’t really put my finger on. This is why I hesitate to say its all about ‘capitalism’ or ‘inequality’ or whatever – there is definitely a cultural element to it.

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          1. Thuto

            Speaking of “negative vibes”, that’s all I feel these days as a black African when I travel to Europe and the negativity has been ratcheted up in the last few years. As regards the cultural aspect to all this, I think you have a point though I believe we have to concede that people’s suspicions and untrusting demeanors do not develop in a vacuum and there may be some historical forces (e.g. past invasions) that a foreigner passing through may not be privy to that nonetheless played a pivotal role in shaping their attitudes.

            Living in Africa, I also observe that most rich westerners that come for the booming Safari tours often (almost always) remark that the indigenous tribes they encounter, despite not having anything substantial in material terms, were the friendliest, most open and warm hearted people they’d ever met. It must be said though that this spirit of ubuntu so freely available in the rural areas and wild national parks where these tribes make their home, is fast eroding in urban areas.

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            1. PlutoniumKun

              Its distressing that you feel things going backwards, but I think in some respects you may be right that the doors are slamming shut in Europe and elsewhere. Britain in particular – I’ve two separate English friends who are ‘white’, but darker skinned than most due to some genetic randomness I assume – have told me they’ve felt a distinct hostility in parts of the UK they never experienced growing up. One of them told me the first time she ever had a ‘go home’ comment made to her in public in her life was on a train the day after the Brexit vote.

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              1. Thuto

                Reminds me of a recent article I read about a white South African expat living in London who, on account of his accent, was beaten to a pulp and told to “go back to Poland”. It’s bad…

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            2. Amfortas the hippie

              regarding Ubuntu: the happiest people i have ever met were a bunch of dirt poor swamp people living in a ramshackle houseboat in the Achafalaya Basin.I stayed with them for most of a summer, and learned to live off the land.
              second most happy folks were the extended family of poor rural black folks outside of Houma, LA–i parked my van in their yard/compound/village for a couple of months, as i was working in the creole restaurant many of them worked at.(this was my culinary education:5 years in a van, throughout the South)

              the least happy? pretty much everybody with a boat and a nice car down around my Dad’s house in Clear Lake, Texas. suspicious, mean and ugly.
              These observations have been repeatedly replicated over the years.

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            3. Oregoncharles

              The pressure cooker effect of city life, so many people crammed into a small space, definitely decreases spontaneous friendliness. People are more guarded just because they have so many interactions, generally with strangers, every day.

              Reply
        4. Ignacio

          All is needed is a single toxic person to create an atmosphere of anger in a workplace, the neighbourhood or your group of friends. Unfortunately such toxic persons are usually in commanding positions. Avoiding these or ignoring them when I cannot avoid contact has been one of the most important lessons I have learnt.

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        5. Hayek's Heelbiter

          Agreed.

          American ex-pat living in London and very grateful to be back from the US (New York & North Carolina) on Monday.

          Why did so many of my recent conversations with my friends across the Pond have to deteriorate into blood-pressure skyrocketing screeds against Trump? I suspect that people are using him as proxy for neoliberalism without realizing how displaced their fury is. And I also have a feeling that such intense “venting” doesn’t relieve stress but quite the opposite.

          On this side of the Pond, Brexit is indeed a mess, with two polar opposites with unbudgeable opinions, but there doesn’t seem to be the Manicheistic demonizing of which “other” the other is.

          Could it because the English drove the Manicheistic Puritans out to settle America?

          In any case, things seem far less “stressful” than I found in the US last week.

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    2. Spring Texan

      Wow, where do you live, Bugs Bunny? Wondering . . . one thing I like about living in Austin, Texas is that generally people are friendly in the stores and at parks, etc.

      Reply
      1. Bugs Bunny

        Living just outside Paris (not the one in TX) might explain some of the aggression…but I’m in a leafy suburb, not the city.

        Maybe I should move to Austin. I’ve always liked that place. Just the health care “system” and all that other BS about living in the US …

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      2. Anon

        Could that be the influence of UTA? Young college students are incredibly hopeful about life. That permeates through my town with a local community college of 15,000.

        Abjectly related, there was an insurance risk study that determined that proximity to rural, young, truck driving males is bad for your road safety. Next biggest risk? Doctors driving near hospitals.

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    3. Oregoncharles

      Bugs – where is it you live, again? Living in a small, prosperous city, I don’t recognize your description of perpetual hostility from strangers. If it happens here, it’s quite rare, and usually they’re obviously disturbed. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I think it does matter where you are.

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  3. The Rev Kev

    I thought that I would try a different slant here. Let us assume that people are what they are – problem solving animals. We are most satisfied when we solve problems as fast as they come up. We work a problem, solve it and then move onto the next problem. WE are in control of our lives. In a primitive society you solve problems like finding water and shelter, hunting animals and finding edible plants. In a modern society the problems are that we go for an education, get a job, build a home & family, etc. Now let us assume that the gap between the problems that we can solve and those that we cannot is where we find stress created. In a flat society you stand a regular chance of building a successful lifestyle for yourself and your family. Do a Horatio Alger in fact.
    So this may explain why there is so much stress in an unequal society. The problems that arise are now no longer being able to be solved by your own efforts. The costs of a good education are prohibitive, accommodation has been taken by those with more wealth than you. Too many jobs are reserved by a favoured social grouping and you are not one of them. Because the society has been deliberately engineered by a class that regards you as merely an exploitable resource and you have little way to solve this series of problems, this accounts for the enormous stress in an unequal society. I do not think that I am too far from the truth with this theory.

    Reply
    1. Jack

      Rev Kev, I think that is a very valid point. We as individuals here in the US have very little control over our lives anymore. Yet, the myths of American exceptionalism and “the pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are in full force. That creates quite a dysfunctional existence for many.

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    2. pretzelattack

      sometimes society seems to me like a giant “behavioral sink” experiment where we get to be the lab rats. but there wouldn’t be enough money in that, so we’re really just collateral (and unimportant) damage–the eggs broken for the omelette, while we aspire to someday be omelette consumers.

      Reply
  4. oaf

    …the *phallocentric* reference may have felt good to publish; but does harm by stirring divisiveness; and detracts from an otherwise interesting analysis.There are other ways to speak of male dominated workplace that don’t conflate male gonads with power tripping…which is sometimes done by women in suits as well….

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      I didn’t read it as male (group) domination. I read it as male (trait) domination: competitiveness, reductionism, subjugation, the violence and war framing. Gonads are entirely orthogonal, or irrelevant, to whether those traits are persistent and deadly toxins.

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  5. Rod

    Poverty can certainly be depressing, but antidepressants are no remedy for poverty.
    And
    The idea of stress offers one way of talking about our vulnerability, but it doesn’t help us do much more than moan about middle-class pressures and grasp at temporary solutions. It offers ballast to the status quo and keeps us as a society from undertaking the potentially more destabilizing work of structural social change that is needed in order to reduce the human distress that is created by adverse social conditions.
    Treat the symptoms or take the cure??

    Reply
  6. Thuto

    This phenomenon can be observed not just in the US but in all countries where neoliberalism has stolen a march on other economic systems. In these highly unequal societies, the stress of constantly worring about the ruinous possibility of falling through the cracks and never reemerging is enough to keep most people on a perpetual edge. Add to this the atomization of society and the selling of the belief that “your destiny is all in your hands” dogma, fortified by the constant retelling in the mainstream media of rags to riches stories of self-made millionaires and billionaires undertaking Herculean individual efforts to overcome enormous hurdles and odds.

    The message to anyone reading these stories is “ignore the fact that you’re required to run faster and faster to stay in the same place, if these guys could do it, you can do it as well and by the way, here’s a stress management pill for to help you cope with the stress of it all, for $99″…

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    1. Spring Texan

      And even if you personally feel fairly secure, it’s not only distressing to realize that many others are not fine and are living on the streets or in extreme precarity, most likely you have friends or relatives who are not so secure as yourself. Although much attenuated compared to being on the edge oneself, it still can cause a lot of tension.

      This year I spent MONTHS worrying about and trying to ascertain the situation of a nephew who has CML and needs Gleevec to stay alive and what would happen vis-a-vis medical coverage once he was laid off from the job he’s had for 14 years (it worked out – but I spent hours and weeks figuring out what we had to do to make that happen – we are not a Medicaid expansion state) and he was very worried too.

      The stress ripples out . . .

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      1. eg

        This is one of the great ironies of inequality — it reduces the quality of life even for the rich, and only more so as the gap widens …

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  7. pretzelattack

    waiting for the next series of self help books:
    “the joy of stress”; “who moved my stress”; “stress therapy for contented people”.

    Reply
  8. juliania

    I don’t think it’s any more helpful to say we live in an ‘unequal’ society. The magnification of extreme wealth compared to the rest of us make the disparity so extreme that it ought to be called something else. Ellen Brown expressed it best in a recent article (sorry, I don’t have the link) in which she said that societies such as ours are based on private control of public finance, and as Yves states above, neoliberalism is the fancy name for that.

    Magnified wealth, for want of a better term, has meant that the 99 percentile plus of the rest of us are not in control of our own lives. We must sing (or croak) “My soul magnifies the wealth” in every aspect of our daily lives that has to do with making ends meet. That’s stress. (Recently I shouted no! at a poor sales clerk who was trying to persuade me to use a self serve cash register.) Once, yes, we could delude ourselves into thinking we could be part of that upper stratum. That was a delusion, because indeed in a kinder world it would be possible to be happy with less. Unfortunately, along with the great wealth comes guilt and along with guilt comes avoidance and along with avoidance comes annoyance and finally hatred. I am talking about the megawealthy. There are still saints among us but you won’t find them up there.

    Reply
  9. Spoofs desu

    All this reminds me of an article/link a few years back (slate.com?) by an academic who repeated the old drug addition experiment where a caged rat with nothing but a water bottle laced with cocaine, a bowl of food, and water bottle. Overtime, the rat would forego the food and water and only consume the cocaine; until it died.

    Of course, this was supposed to be a simplified behavioral model of why drugs are bad and the power of addiction with the war on drugs soon to follow.

    However, in the updated experiment, the rat not only had the same three things to consume (i.e. food, water, cocaine) but in its larger cage was a rat playground with all sorts of things for it to do and have fun. In this updated experiement, the rat would indulge the cocaine only occasionally and then only soon after meals.

    So, in consequence, what these two experiments show, given the addiction epidemic in our society, that we are living lives equivalent to a bunch caged rats.

    Reply
        1. Spoofs desu

          ….and, the fact that it was morphine instead of cocaine doesn’t change any larger conclusions, of course—-thanks again.

          Reply
  10. Krystyn Walentka

    I am now currently living full time in a van because I could not longer afford rent in my town of 20 years. I am on Permanat Disability for OCD, Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder.

    I tell my doctors all the time that their meds do not work long term because they all act on the receptors and that a more beneficial result would be for me to have stable housing so I do not get the stress that triggers my illness and sends me to the hospital. So instead of taking meds that increase GABA (calming) to calm me down, I need to stop creating so much glutamate. (Excitatory).

    They agree and shrug. And when I tell them that I have a shot if vodka now and then to help my mood (cheaper and more effective, science) you would think I told them I was shooting heroin.

    All this crap in my life happened under the Obama administration and that the first real SS COLA I received was under Trump. (No, not a trump fan).

    Anyway, while the stress of living in my van was pretty bad the first few nights, now that I am out in nature in Wyoming I am experiencing a peace that I have not felt for a long time. The cities and the madding people are too much for me. They are like fish who don’t know they are in water. And college students in college towns are the worst.

    I try to avoid the tourist spots but i drove through the Badlands and the instagrammers were all over. Pro cameras, outfits, etc. Everything is a hustle and the hustle is stress.

    Of these:

    they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts.

    I have one and a half covered. But I think the agency and control I have living in my van has been a huge positive change.

    So I know what I need to be healthy but I don’t have the money.

    Welcome to neoliberalism.

    Reply
      1. Krystyn Walentka

        Thank you, but don’t be sorry. It is something I long wanted to do but did not have the courage. The only thing that sucks was that it was not my choice and I had to bug a lot of contacts to raise my net for the van. I might find a small town somewhere that suits me, that is the point of this adventure.

        Plus it means a lot of nature pictures for Lambert. :)

        Reply
        1. Amfortas the hippie

          I spent five years doing that when i was 20…due to my chivalry in helping a girl escape an abusive father, who happened to be a Town Father..so add “outlaw” to my resume. Exile wasn’t my choice, but i made the best of it.
          it was hard, at times, but 30 years later i amaze my boys and their buddies with tales of adventure, and of wonders i’ve witnessed and been a part of.
          and the resourcefulness one necessarily develops can’t be bought.
          I’m too broken to attempt it today, and my toes have thoroughly rooted into my garden dirt…but even now, i sometimes miss it(this time, I’d go west,lol)
          good luck on your journey,Krystyn. May the wind be at your back.
          (and keep a journal…it helps when trying to write it all down later.)

          Reply
    1. CarlH

      Krystyn: Thank you for your story. I always love your contributions here and wish you weren’t having to send them during such stressful times.

      Reply
    2. Oregoncharles

      Some culture – Japan? – calls it “forest bathing” – though Wyoming might be more grassland and mountains. And yes, it helps a lot.

      Good luck, we’re rooting for you, and keep in touch! Your contributions here are valued.

      Reply
  11. Oregoncharles

    “In the 980s… for the middle classes, maintaining their health was fast becoming a universal responsibility and an overarching moral value.”

    Perfectly rational, if you don’t have good health insurance. And the situation is far worse now.

    Reply
  12. Susan the other`

    Everything Dana says is true, in fact it is a leitmotif throughout human history. It is there, without a doubt. Health and Inequality is more a feature than a bug. I stumbled on books I was reading just before the GFC. I put them all down and began researching why and how we got ourselves into such an ignominious mess. And of course I came here to NC and was informed beyond my expectations. I was educated. Finally. One of those books was Amos Elon’s ‘The Pity of it All’ which is a masterpiece of (as he describes it) how an oppressed people tolerate their own oppression – it is the greatest of human puzzles. I agree. The Pity of it All is an account of the history of German Jews. They were there before the “Germans” and ultimately were subjugated by a matrix of Christianity and survival of the most political. Regardless of the irrationality of it all. This is where we find ourselves today. I identify with Dana Becker – I sometimes can’t get to sleep wondering what will happen to Bill if I get sick. Social stress is oppression. We need to name it. Thanks for this post.

    Reply
    1. Kaizo Trap

      Try Prophets Without Honor by Frederic V. Grunfeld. I admittedly haven’t read The Pity of it All, but when it came out it I got the impression it was some sort of opportunistic Cheneyite rehash of the former.

      Reply
  13. Dan

    As far as stress in society, as an older white male, having witnessed the parsing of society in the 1970s between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians where we live, from The Little Red Book, to the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, etc, now I am seeing (some) women throwing looks of hate at any normal looking man, their mouths usually down turned in bitterness. These women are always well dressed and judging by the time of day, are not working class.

    Congratulations to the Cultural Marxists, they have pretty much divided everyone and destroyed a unified civic society. All that’s left is to alienate children from their parents. Mission accomplished, the glaring financial inequities of society and the over preponderance of a select group controlling almost everything of importance are in little danger of revelation, once the internet has been censored and locked down, to “control hate.”

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      Administrivia: Can we please have the corporate propaganda term Cultural Marxism banned alongside ad-hom?

      Reply

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