A Stressed Out Nation is ... a Happier Nation?

The things that create stress in our lives are also the things that create meaning.

Kelly McGonigal: One of the unexpected upsides of stress is its surprising link to meaning and life. A few years ago a study was released by the World Gallup Poll that actually looked at what they called the stress index of 121 countries where they went around the world and they asked people, "Did you experience a great deal of stress yesterday?" And they had expected, the researchers expected that having a country of people who were stressed out that that would be related to really terrible things, you know, less happiness with life, less satisfaction with life. You know, worse health, shorter life expectancy. What they found instead is that if you have a nation of people who say yesterday was really stressful, you have a nation of people who also are happier; they’re more satisfied with their lives. They also tend to live longer. And one of the reasons seems to be that the things that create stress in our lives are also the things that create meaning. That same Gallup World Poll found that a high stress index was associated with a greater chance that you would say you learned something interesting yesterday, a greater chance that you experienced joy, love, laughter yesterday. And a more recent study done here in the United States found that if you want to know whether or not someone has a meaningful life, the best way to find out is to ask them about the stress in their lives. That people who say their lives are more meaningful they’ve tended to experience more stress in their past. They tend to be under more stress currently. They spend more time thinking about the difficulties they’ve overcome and they also spend more time worrying about the future. And it again seems to be because the things in our lives, the relationships, the roles, the difficult goals that we’re pursuing, the things that create meaning also inevitably create stress.

And a simple example of a mindset reset that’s been shown to really change the way people experience the most distressing moments is to bring to mind the value that is sort of most relevant to the stressful situation. So to give you an example, last night I was on a flight coming back from Georgia. There were crazy thunderstorms here in New York and we had a really difficult landing. And I’m someone who hates flying. I’m afraid of flying. I hate turbulence. I get motion sickness. It was just a disaster. And I’m literally like holding onto my seat and holding onto the side of the window trying to stay in my seat despite the fact that I’m strapped in. And what helps in those moments is to remember two of my values. One is courage. That every time I get on an airplane, I am demonstrating that this is something I care about to actually express courage that I can help other people be brave. And also to recognize that I value what travel gives me in life, that I value the fact that I was able to go and meet with people who work in health care and talk to them about behavior change so that they might support health and well-being in others. You know I value being able to go places even if in the moment of the flight it’s incredibly distressing. And bringing those things into the distressing moments seems to really protect people from the typical sort of negative effects of those big moments of distress where you’re, you know, you’d rather be anywhere else or you are starting to lose hope in your situation.

The good folks at Gallup were shocked to crunch the numbers on a poll from a few years ago to find that countries with higher stress are also countries with happier, more enthusiastic citizens. Why is this? Shouldn't the opposite be true? Well, according to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, the things that create stress in our lives are also the things that create meaning. Just think about all the things worth pursuing in a society of ambitious, innovative people. How many of them are completely stress-free affairs? Almost zero.

Stress is a double-edged sword: It wears on us, but it's also worth being worn.


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