Stress, Social Justice and Our American Psyche

| Present

How many articles have you read over the years giving advice to help you deal with your daily stress? Five? Ten? Thirty? How much of this advice has actually worked over the long term? What if the daily stress that millions of Americans experience does not result so much from individual decisions and lifestyles but rather from larger, more collective underpinnings of our society that seep into our individual psyches?

A recent piece in Time magazine (Feb. 6, 2017) begins, “Stress is a modern mental bogeyman that keeps half of U.S. adults up at night. . . [S]tress takes a measurable physical toll on the body.” The author, Mandy Oaklander, offers four strategies to relieve stress: conduct a body scan, try gentle yoga, do a breathing exercise, and take a walking meditation. I have seen most of these strategies described elsewhere in articles about relieving stress, and it is certainly true that such practices are valuable tools. (Note that yoga, breathing exercises and meditation techniques have long been used in religious contexts to good effect. It is unfortunate that so many stressed-out Americans ignore, dismiss or disparage religious practices – or are ignorant of them. But I digress.)

Another article in Time a week earlier, by Susanna Schrobsdorff, picked up on the recent trend of employers starting “to suggest, or even mandate, ways in which employees should unplug their connected devices.” From companies such as Daimler to entire nations like France, efforts are underway to relieve stress by untying workers from their emails and other devices. This is easier said than done in many cases, of course, but at least there is growing recognition around the “civilized” world that constantly being “on” can be dangerous to our health.

Despite articles like these, however, I have seen few treatments of the stress issue that would question and try to reform certain “givens” of our culture that play such large roles in our national stressfulness. When so many citizens are so chronically troubled, it behooves us to consider the larger social justice implications. Is it right for a wealthy country to have so many citizens who suffer? Is it fair that we are told constantly by so-called experts that the responsibility for relieving our stress is on our individual shoulders? Does it make any sense at all that we routinely feel guilty that our stress interferes in our lives and needs to be dealt with, on top of all the other challenges we face daily?

Let’s examine some underlying reasons that we are so stressed-out and entertain a few ideas that take the blame and responsibility away from the individual and place it more on our underlying social, political and economic foundations as a nation.

  • As noted in the Schrobsdorff piece, many Americans feel a great deal of stress in the workplace. As we noted earlier,  Americans work way too many hours (often for only stagnating wages) and only enjoy paid leave if their employer offers it. Most other nations legislate generous leave and reasonable working hours at the national level. How much stress would be relieved in the American workplace if we followed other nations’ leads and legislated paid vacation, sick and parental leave? (Polls show that Americans do want this!)
  • Most of us have probably heard horror stories around stress created by injury, illness, accidents and the need for medications that are not covered adequately by health insurance. Would our stress levels not be drastically reduced if we did not have to worry about medical bills or going bankrupt from a health issue that is out of our control? The US health care system, tied up entirely with for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical entities that primarily benefit extremely wealthy CEOs, is the most backward of all the advanced Western democracies. This is an absolute disgrace in a country that touts itself as the richest nation on earth…
  • Despite the official national unemployment rate of 4.8%, it is widely acknowledged that the real unemployment rate (known as the U-6) is much higher, currently closer to 9.4%. It is also widely known that millions of Americans must work two or three jobs at low wages just to keep their heads above water. As we noted earlier, Europe handles unemployment much differently than we do in the US, where US benefits are lower than the recipient’s previous wages and time-limited. The stress (not to mention self-blame) that devolves on the out-of-work (or overworked/underpaid or underemployed) individual and families is well-documented – and tragic. How much of this stress would be alleviated by drastically rethinking and restructuring our unemployment benefits and ensuring a living wage for full-time positions? If our European peers can do this, why can’t we?
  • As became quite clear during the 2016 presidential campaign, the high cost of college is on millions of Americans’ minds. The stress caused by high tuition rates, especially on students who must work while also enrolled in college, is well-known. As we have seen, however, European and many other countries offer tuition-free higher education (even to visiting American students in some cases!). This idea may finally be taking off, albeit slowly, throughout the US; Rhode Island, for instance, is considering their Governor’s proposal to offer two tuition-free years for full-time students in public higher education. Stress related to the cost of higher education would be nearly eliminated if our national educational system were reformed to offer American students tuition-free college and vocational education.

As should be apparent, tremendous stress on individual Americans would be greatly alleviated if some of the basic underpinnings of our culture were reformed and reconfigured along more communal lines. We Americans look far too much to fixing our individual selves – relieving our own personal stress – rather than coming to a deeper understanding of how this individualistic perspective is not only self-damaging but also self-perpetuating. We also rarely consider the social justice aspects of our situation – how our structures and institutions work against all of us. We will never make a dent in our individual stress levels if we do not acknowledge how our underlying social, economic and even philosophical stances in our national psyche contribute to our malaise – and commit to transform them.

In a Trump administration, bolstered by Republican control of both houses of Congress, any significant change in perspective, let alone change in regulations, is admittedly almost impossible. Ideologically Republicans rail against government initiatives and programs to solve social problems (except, hypocritically, issues like abortion), urging us to put our faith in the free market and volunteerism. However, given the recent momentum of protests across the nation (and the world, for that matter) of a coalition of groups striving for inclusion, civil rights, diversity, federal funding for progressive programs, and a more pro-government stance, it can be argued that there is strong momentum in the US for different ways of thinking and behaving.

The key, in my opinion, is for members of this growing, determined coalition to understand at deep levels that communal solutions bolstered by legislation are the best ways not only to relieve chronic stress but also to achieve goals that enhance the lives of the majority of Americans. European and other nations have harnessed capitalism to forge vibrant middle class populations with many fewer stressors – and there is no reason we cannot do the same.