Our Shared Culture of Stress


I’m having a particularly stressful day today.  One of the first of the new year.  Not necessarily an entirely woeful situation but I am definitely feeling it and actively figuring out ways to alleviate the situation.  Interestingly enough (and also something most of you will empathize with), in dealing with that stress I am not considering how I can reduce the stress level but merely finding ways to cope.  Instead of smoking a cigarette I thought, in true Narcissistic form, I would philosophize in a public forum for others to ponder my profoundly relevant scenario and how it relates to our culture at large.

In thinking about “stress” as a concept it seems like something that has some pretty distinct context in western  / North American culture.  I believe that “stress” – a term I am using to define the looser space of feeling strained, a bit out of control and otherwise taxed by circumstance, is actually one of our core values as a consumer / corporate culture. As a matter of fact, I think we eat it for breakfast – that it’s something that nourishes us.

There are many cultures and subcultures where the life priority of harmony and centeredness and balance prevails as a norm.  In the U.S. and other developed countries like us, however, we value the opposite.  We constantly create more and more tools to enable us to handle more tasks and obligations at once.  When we greet one another and ask “how are you”, the accepted response these days is not “well, thank you” or “happy” or “loving life”, but rather some semblance of “really good.  keeping busy”.

To that end, in the culture that surrounds dealing with stress is not one of re-examining priorities or eliminating tasks / obligations but rather treating symptoms.  We have a robust industry that peddles all kinds of remedies from homeopathic to prescription. We also talk about physical exercises as a way to exert ourselves to stave off the physical effects of stress.  We buy stress balls and desktop boxes that have sand and tiny rakes (for a moment of “zen”). We drink, smoke, take layabout vacations and otherwise have all kinds of other industry revolving around outlets and vices to help us cope.  Cope being the key word

So I pose the question:  why do we value stress so much in our culture?  Is it because it is a measure of how necessary we are to others, which we feel directly correlates to our value?  Do we not value our obligations to ourselves?  Do we feel that taking on stress consequently allows us to empathize and ultimately relate to the other stressed-out members of our social circle?  Perhaps we use stress like a drug – taking it on to avoid looking inward or broadening our perspective to deeper, headier, broader issues that we face as humans? Does having stress give us an excuse to have vices – which we are loath to get rid of?

Perhaps someday we will evolve our culture a bit to value a bit more balance and take the shiny glow off of stress as priority value and it will make us healthier and happier.  I would love for the day when the most popular answer  the “how are you” question is “I’m stress free and being me” or something of equal narcissistic bliss.


Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Culture, Participant Observation, pop culture, sociology, Uncategorized, Well-being | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Our Shared Culture of Stress

  1. I tend to not stress too much because it just makes me feel bad. Maybe I’m lazy? Ehhh well.

    “Perhaps we use stress like a drug – taking it on to avoid looking inward or broadening our perspective to deeper, headier, broader issues that we face as humans?”
    I think this could be the case. It’s easier to stress about your day planner than to look inward and end up having a life-shattering existential crisis. I also think stress brings with it a sense of accomplishment. If you’re stressed it means you have a lot of things to do, and no one has to know if they’re important or not. That’s your own dirty little secret.

    I think too you’re right about even American approach to being ‘stress-free’ is stressful. It’s like ready, set, GO!! Stop now, just relax… Ok you’re done. Get back to work.

  2. Pingback: Score One For Perspective: Science Proves Relaxation Makes You More Productive! « The Narcissistic Anthropologist

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