Friday, March 8, 2013

Stressed Much? You’re In Good Company

Eric Schultz
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Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released a study called Stress in America, concluding that Millennials, 18 to 33-year-old
From "Science Nation - Teens and Stress" (NSF)
Americans, along with Gen Xers (34-47), are the most stressed generations in America.  On a scale of 1-10, the average American defines a healthy level of stress as 3.6 but feels a level of 4.9.  Millennials and Gen Xers are at 5.4, a level the study concludes is “far higher than Boomers’ average stress level of 4.7 and Matures’ [67 and over] of 3.7.”


Thirty-nine percent of Millennials say their stress has increased in the last year, while 52 percent report having lain awake at night in the past month due to stress.  “Millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to say that they are stressed by work, money and job stability, while Boomers and Matures are more likely to be concerned with health issues affecting their families and themselves,” the study concluded.

All of which left me wondering: Is this degree of stress in America something new?  A recent epidemic?  A product of fast times and too much fast food?  Or perhaps a cultural peculiarity, a kind of national trait—maybe even an irksome downside to achieving progress or byproduct of what time-management guru David Allen would call “getting things done.”

One of my very favorite 19th-century books, both for its passion and unintended humor, was written by Dr. George Miller Beard, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.  Beard was known for having defined “neurasthenia,” a medical condition that arose in the 19th century and produced fatigue, anxiety, and depression, which he attributed to nothing less than American civilization.  His 1881 American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences concluded that steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and (perhaps Beard’s reaction to suffrage?) the mental activity of women were the primary contributors.

The signs of American nervousness, Beard said, were everywhere: susceptibility to narcotics and drugs, rapid decay of the teeth, premature baldness, the unprecedented beauty of American women (indeed, at some point we might need Dr. Freud to fully understand Dr. Beard), the strain of puberty and change of life; American oratory, speech, and language; and the greater intensity of animal life on this continent.  Fortunately, Beard remained optimistic, saying that wealth and invention could bring calm.  After all, he concluded (in a classic line we might better attribute to a Monty Python sketch), “The Greeks were certainly civilized, but they were not nervous.”

Another poignant reminder of American anxiety came in Henry Adams’s brilliant The Education of Henry Adams, published at his death in 1918 (and a Pulitzer Prize-winner the following year).  Henry’s dilemma clearly resonated with Americans when he wrote that “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and a new one created by the crush of technology--the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad, the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay, and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency. Later in Adams’ life, of course, came electricity, the telephone and the automobile. He remembered the time of “the flint-and-steel with which his grandfather [John Quincy] Adams used to light his own fires in the early morning”; now the world had bathrooms, water, lighting and modern heat—“the whole array of domestic comforts.”

Adams’s anxiety was caused by the fact, despite a life-long education like few in America would ever experience, that he was completely unprepared for the world of the 20th century. “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams wrote, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.”

(I wonder if he was referring to my iPhone?)

Need further proof, or perhaps a wider lens?  In her superb Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000) Joyce Appleby discusses a book called Peter Rugg, The Missing Man.  Written by William Austin (1778-1841) and published in 1824, it was the most popular story of the early Republic.  It reads like a bad, confusing dream, a kind of 19th-century “Charlie on the MTA.”  Peter sets out by carriage from Concord to Boston in a thunderstorm in 1770 and simple rides forever.  He stops repeatedly to ask directions and finds there is no more King; the old road has become a turnpike; the city has grown beyond anything he could imagine. Indeed, Appleby points out, Austin and his generation would see Boston triple in size and New York grow to six times its size from 1776 to 1820; it was an unprecedented “destruction of their elders world.”

Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Peter Rugg’s contemporary.

By all accounts, stress in America is real, uncomfortable, potentially destructive, and something we need to work to control. But a little history indicates we’re not setting any precedents. Just ask John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the country’s first billionaire and, adjusted for time, considered the richest American ever. Rockefeller once confided “how often I had not an unbroken night’s sleep, worrying about how it was all coming out.”

Well, things didn’t turn out so badly for Mr. Rockefeller. American history suggests that, heads down, a little optimism (and maybe a little less fast food), the Millennials and Gen Xers will be alright, too.

6 comments:

hcr said...

I loved this! (Although I promptly went off to read Peter Rugg: The Missing Man-- which I really didn't need to waste time doing!)

This is great. Someone told me recently we're all stressed all the time. Now I can see we've ALWAYS been stressed all the time!

Actually, though, come to think of it, I've been reading the Democratic Review this week, and I find it irritating how much space they use to say so little. Maybe things WERE a bit slower in the 1840s?

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Maybe the difference now is that we have lots of technology telling us all the things other people are doing that make us feel we're less productive than we should be.

I'm sitting here at the Huntington Library and all my students have complete access to me all the time due to email/iphone technologies. At one point in my career, the archive would have been a place I was unreachable. Now I'm trying to run a department and take notes on seventeenth century epistemology at the same time.

And I was actually just thinking, as I read a 250-page "pamphlet" written by a very busy politician: "where did he get the time to do all of this writing????"

So, yes, thanks for the reminder that this is nothing new. At least my transportation options are way more comfortable than traveling by coach in the seventeenth or eighteenth century or even by coal-powered technologies in the nineteenth century....

hcr said...

But, LIsa: If you were stuck on a coach or a train, you could at least have unbroken time to read! I love the train even still for that very reason (but you're right, there's still email and texting, even on the train. Sigh.).

Eric Schultz said...

If you're going to read Peter Rugg you at least have to reward yourself by watching the Kingston Trio sing "Charlie on the MTA" on youtube. It's only fair.

The plane was the last great island of incommunicado, and now that's gone as well. Although I understand the Vatican has some kind of device in the Sistine Chapel that stops the Cardinals for tweeting and texting. You don't want to mess with the smoke signals.

If I can find the gadget online I'll let you know. Maybe one for the attic?

Marshall Pontrelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hcr said...

I did, just now! I love that song. When I was a homesick waitress in Oklahoma in the mid-1980s, we had a jukebox in the restaurant that had that and Bette Midler's Old Cape Cod. The rest of the staff used to play them for me all the time. I don't think I'd heard them since, and Charlie on the MTA is still wonderful.

Great that they had to put something special in the Sistine Chapel to keep the Cardinals from tweeting and texting. And some people think we can stop our students from doing it?!?