Stress is an issue facing many individuals that we work with. Time and time again, we see people feeling overwhelmed because of the pressures that they face as part of modern life. So what are some common causes of stress in modern life, and what’s the antidote? Read on to find out more.
A. Why is there so much stress, anxiety, and depression these days?
Evolutionary psychologists will tell us that part of the problem is that there’s a mismatch between the current environment (with its cities, bureaucracies, inequality, and social media) and the environment of evolutionary adaptation (tribal life on the savanna).
In order to explore this possibility a bit, we will consider some of the ways the modern world is different from the one our ancestors on the savanna might have encountered. Here are 5 ways reasons the modern world might produce more stress, anxiety and depression than that of our distant ancestors.
1. We interact with a greater diversity of people.
As we meet new people over the course of a year, we confront a greater diversity of skills, knowledge, and values than people have ever encountered before. Diversity is the source of much good. Diverse groups of qualified people usually come up with better solutions to problems than less diverse groups.
However, modern diversity also strains our brains—especially the diversity in values. A person has a family. A person also has workmates, schoolmates, and playmates. And people join churches or special interest groups that meet weekly or monthly, in person or on the internet.
2. We compare ourselves to higher standards.
We watch TV and everyone is beautiful. We are not as beautiful. We watch TV and everyone is rich. Entrepreneurs are always successful. Authors always get published. People’s houses are considerably nicer than ours.
We watch the Olympics and realize we might as well not even know how to run or swim. And it dawns on us that our synchronized swimming partner sucks. Only those in the top 1% of 1% of 1% have an opportunity to display their talents, wealth, and beauty before the general public. And those are the people we compare ourselves to. It’s a nearly impossible standard.
3. We specialize more.
Aristotle read all the intellectual writings that existed in Greece in his time, and then went on to add a substantial chunk to this body of knowledge himself.
Even as recently as 1600—if you were reasonably bright and had enough time on your hands—you could have a good grasp of all academic knowledge. You could read all the “classics”. You could master the known mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric and so on.
From 1600 to 1900 you could not master all human knowledge, no matter how bright you were; but, if you worked hard, you could aspire to master a single field—like mathematics, physics, philosophy or history. By 1950, you were lucky to master a sub-discipline like Chinese history.
Today you’re lucky to master a sub-sub-sub discipline—like the history of the first 100 years of the Ch’in Dynasty from the perspective of a house servant.
Today we have to work harder than ever to get mastery of ever smaller fields. And the payoff for this work is smaller than ever.
If you were a scholar in the year 1500 and you went to a cocktail party and someone introduced you as “a scholar”, that meant something. That meant you knew EVERYTHING.
You tell someone you develop web-based software. They hear “computers” and they want you to fix their printer. You can’t fix their printer, so you must not really know computers.
We often don’t understand what our neighbor does for a living, and we don’t know how to explain what we do.
We might even be the best in the world at some small little leaf far out on the tree of skill or the tree of knowledge, but no one we grew up with cares.
4. Markets are more efficient (a.k.a. “It’s the economy, stupid!”)
If you provide a product no one else provides, you can charge a high price and make good money. This probably won’t last long, though. If your profit margin is high enough, others will notice the opportunity and set up shop to compete with you. This will drive down prices. With enough competition, prices will fall to a level not much higher than the cost of production.
As consumers, we love this. As entrepreneurs we find it frustrating.
This same dynamic applies to the labor market. If you have a skill very few others have, you can charge a high price for your labor. However, if your wages are high enough, others will notice the opportunity and begin developing the skills they need to compete with you. If the supply of qualified workers grows faster than the need for the service, wages will fall. As business owners we love this. As workers we hate it.
5. Innovation happens faster.
We live in exciting times. New discoveries are being made every year in almost every field of science. New gadgets are being invented every year. And our existing technologies are being improved every year.
It’s well known that computers have been getting faster. Until recently computer clock speeds had doubled roughly every 18 months since computers were first developed. Your smart phone is (much) more powerful than the computers NASA used to run the Apollo Project. There’s reason to think this pace of improvement has slowed, and will continue to slow, but we are finding other ways, such as parallel computing, to keep finding improvements.
Some improvements are happening even faster. The Human Genome Project set out to sequence the human genome in 1989. It took 13 years and 3 Billion dollars to finish.
Toward the end of the Human Genome Project a private company working in parallel reduced the cost in money and time to $200 million and about one year.
Just 15 years later a machine can sequence a genome in less than a day at a teeny fraction of the cost.
Have you heard about 3-D printers? These machines take a 3-D design for a coffee mug or a bracelet, or pretty much any solid object you can imagine, and print them layer by layer out of plastic. Individuals with a sense of design can invent new gadgets all by themselves.
B. Stress in Under-Developed Countries.
Poverty has been reported to be a major cause of depression and stress. In turn these are reported to be major causes of shortened life expectancy in these countries.
According to recent credible international surveys across the globe, on average, almost 15 percent of the people in these countries live below the poverty line. This means they are not even able to manage the basic necessities of life.
This is where depression and stress develops, when the basic necessities are not met and the requirements of your own children are not fulfilled. At this point, the guilt of not being able to manage it creeps into the mind of the common man. The guilt brings on depression. Stress also develops, with constantly thinking about how to manage the crisis.
According to a viral news website, where there is poverty, there is an excessive rise in population growth of the country without advancements being made in many sectors. This results in more scarce resources remaining, and due to the poverty factor, it is reported that many children are malnourished!
Most under-developed countries with little advancement being made, and mediocre infrastructure and medical facilities, have higher rates of unemployment resulting in increasing poverty levels, this is a vicious cycle.
C. Some Reasons Why Modern Life Causes Stress in Industrialized Countries
A recent survey shows about three-quarters of those living in industrialized countries feel stress and anxiety on a daily basis.
1. CONSTANTLY BEING CONNECTED.
Technology is wonderful – we can connect with people far away, in different time zones, and have an insight into their lives simply by sitting passively behind our smartphone. It helps us to feel connected, right?
The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as that. With improvements in technology we’re typically tethered to our phones as work emails pile up. We’re also constantly connected via social media, which has its upside and its downside.
What would it be like to have a detox from your digital devices? Would that cause you relief or anxiety?
2. TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH.
Nowadays there’s a niche for everything (and Facebook and Instagram can attest to that), and it’s as if we have to ‘fit’ into a niche:
a. Busy professional scaling the corporate ladder and smashing glass ceilings? Check.
b. Organised stay-at-home parent, whipping up Instagram-worthy bento boxes and tempering chocolate for the kids’ Easter school treats? Check.
c. Adventurer and traveller snapping the sights of the most exotic, yet-to-be discovered destinations in the world? Check.
d. The creatives, including the baristas who are into rainbow latte art, event planners who throw the perfect share-worthy children’s birthday parties, or the photographers whose pictures transport you to a different time and place? Check.
e. The fitness and lifestyle bloggers/Instagrammers who make over their bodies in a few weeks and show off the fruits of their labour every moment of the day? Check.
The problem is that we’re fooled into thinking that we need to do all of these, and all at the same time. Witness the rise of the superman or superwoman, yet in reality it isn’t possible to simultaneously excel at work and home life, to travel the world yet nurture your work, to be creative and fit all at the same time.
The pressure to maintain an image of perfection is surely exhausting. And yet, that’s what many of us buy into. If this sounds like you, it’s helpful to ask yourself if you’re heading towards burnout and what impact it has on your quality of life.
3. NOT PRIORITISING
Along with trying to do too much there’s a shortage of prioritising, leading to feeling pulled in different directions in life without a real focus, goal, or purpose. This can result in feeling a lack of achievement or accomplishment and this, together with a heightened workload, is a recipe for burnout.
4. POOR AND/OR INFREQUENT STRESS-RELEASE MECHANISMS
Stress is an inevitable part of a busy, modern life. Unfortunately, as most of us are time-poor, stress-release mechanisms frequently tend to be poor (e.g. drinking alcohol, having a shot of caffeine or sugar, eating fatty comfort foods), or infrequent (e.g. going for a long run once a week, going for a relaxing massage once every three weeks).
However, we need to be on top of our game when it comes to our basic building blocks if we’re to combat stress, or our health will itself reinforce the stress that we experience.
Air pollution, noise pollution, visual pollution…everywhere we turn there’s a constant source of stimulation and not necessarily in a positive way. From being constantly connected (see Point 1, and also this article on Why the Modern World is Bad for your Brain) to air pollution affecting our wellbeing, and noise pollution affecting our ability to hear ourselves think…it’s not surprising that we readily become stressed.