By now, you can probably reel off those familiar headlines by rote: “10 Top Stress Busters”; “Techniques to beat Hassle”; “How to stay Cool, Calm and Collected”. You know all the stratagems and the strategies, the techniques and the tips: Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. Learn to manage anger. Try yoga. Try tai chi. De-caffeinate. Meditate. Delegate. Automate… You’ve even incorporated a few – or several – of them into your life.
Why then are you still doing the salsa with Stress?
Helpful and positive as all these approaches may be, trying to harness 21st century stress only through their use is like trying to treat a festering wound with a patchwork of Band-aids. It fails because today’s stresses go beyond just the bogey of too many demands. It’s now, for most people, the frightening feeling of being out of control, overwhelmed, disconnected and lost.
The Snares of “success”
And it’s linked inexorably with the noose of what has come to constitute “success”. In their determination to wrest their destiny through impregnable success, it has become unthinkable for most people to slow their rise up the ladder. The pressure to do more, to make more, and to go on going on never stops. The ante for positional, status goods keeps getting raised. And before you know it, you’re working 10 plus-hour days, eating on the run, feeling constantly irritated about the smallest of things, getting no exercise except walking through airports, gaining weight, watching your social life recede into oblivion, desperately seeking relaxation in a multiplex or a mall, turning into an insomniac because, instead of re-charging your tired body and mind with sleep, you’re lying awake thinking about what you should have done, what you haven’t done, what you need to do.
Worse – today, more than ever, being success-orientated is increasingly premised upon the willingness to be ruthless rather than passive, dominating rather than submissive and confrontational rather than compromising. This approach, once it becomes your functioning style, begins to work insidious, deep-seated changes in your very psyche. We see the signs all around us – vicious self-seeking, chicanery, cunning, hypocrisy, fickleness, greed, people becoming moral cripples by the millions, willing to do whatever, use whatever, use whomever.
Wants Vs needs
What’s going on? Psychologist Oliver James hit the nail on the head in his best-seller, “Affluenza”. He used the metaphor of a disease, an affliction characterized by the dogged Pursuit of More, the frantic ferment to keep up with the Joneses. “We are suffering an epidemic of what I term the Affluenza Virus,” he wrote, “putting a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and celebrity. These values place you at greater risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse because they impede the meeting of true needs (security or intimate relationships), rather than confected wants.”
Therein lies the crux. Catching the Affluenza virus dooms you to go chasing after the fulfilment of wants (which never end), at the cost of meeting your needs as a human being, which no matter whether you are pauper or prince, are – and have always been – the same. You know what those needs are as well as the psychologists do, but most people don’t even see that, as they keep chasing ‘wants’ in a blind, insatiable way, their basic ‘needs’ are going unmet. Right up there on the sacrificial block are:
» Your Physiological needs (sacrificed when you sideline healthy food for junk-on-the-run; when you allow yourself to run to bloat and bulge; when you put your heart at risk with a sedentary life; when you throw your bio-rhythms totally out of sync with erratic eating, sleeping, waking, working hours; when you drive yourself through the day in an over-caffeinated, sugar-laced rush).
» Your Love and Belongingness needs. The family is the prime sacrificial lamb here. We are so fixated on and so worried about the future that we forget the importance of focusing our energies on the people who need us (and whom we need) today. Our spouses, our children, our parents, grand-parents, siblings. When your weekday priorities are deadlines and deals, and when your weekends are booked with household chores and outdoor errands, you’re inexorably growing more and more isolated from your family. And when work frustrations and stress build up, you find yourself venting all that negativity on those closest to you – your family, again.
Children, too, suffer collateral damage. Parents kid themselves that it is ‘quality’ time with their kids that matters, not quantity. It’s self-deceiving to turn aside from the truth that both, quality and quantity matter, and that substituting either or both with ‘material love’ – expensive toys, uber-cool gadgets, or fat wads of pocket money – does their children damage in the long term.
The Love and Support needs are also taking a hit from the fact that people have fewer friends these days. People are yearning for friendships and other close relationships – but these require an investment of time and of the self that most are unwilling to give. All around us, we see friendships being sacrificed on the altar of success.
A price too high
Most people are slow to make the connection between their demanding lifestyle and their unsatisfactory life outside it. But you don’t have to wait till you’ve reached a point of desperation before you decide to opt out of that headlong, lemmings-like rush to self-destruction.
There are no shortcuts to change. Old habits die hard… and old thinking (which is, after all, a habit of the mind) dies hardest of all. The search for that elusive work-life balance begins with some serious soul-searching, an honest look at priorities and perspectives. Here are some pointers to get you on your way.
Do a reality check. You can begin by taking a close and candid look at where you stand today in terms of meeting your basic needs as a human being. Here’s a snap-check in two parts.
This two-part test may be a painful exercise but a very helpful one to give yourself a reality check. Is there a serious disconnect between your answers in Part 1 and Part 2? Part 1 comprises your “words” – what you would like to prioritize in your life. Part 2 comprises your “actions” – how closely you are actually living your life according to your priorities. If you spend 10 hours daily working on a job you hate, that job is still your ‘priority’ in terms of your “actions” (Column 2).
When clients in therapy do this self-check, most of them put ‘parenting’, ‘us’, ‘family’, ‘financial stability’, ‘health’ and ‘friendships’ at the top of their Part 1 answers. (It’s no coincidence that all these reflect basic human ‘needs’). But heading their list of what they actually give time to is, generally – no surprises here – Work. Their checklist in Part 2 also indicates they are spending more time and money in the pursuit of ‘Possessions’ than in the pursuit of ‘Leisure’ – a clear prioritization of ‘wants’ over ‘needs’.
Trust yourself – and look for self-esteem within. Education and career advancement are areas we generally focus on very strongly because some part of us keeps retreating into the anxiety of survival mode. Education has become primarily a means to career advancement, and Career primarily a means to financial stability.
If we trusted ourselves and others, if we felt 100% secure in our relationships, if we realized with true conviction that work fulfilment beats a bloated pay packet any day as a route to job satisfaction, then we would know that we don’t need to be corporate czars or to possess the ultimate driving machine in order to experience fulfilment. If you’re tutoring students in mathematics and if your teaching skills are so finely-honed that you are able to inculcate (as Shakuntala Devi’s books have done) the joy of working with figures in students who once hated this subject, then your achievement in doing this – and it certainly is an achievement – can be the source of both, work satisfaction and self-esteem. Provided you see it that way.
Unfortunately, with most of us, self-esteem derives largely, if not solely, from externally-conferred recognition and accolades. When certificates on the wall or public adulation become the primary source of your self-worth, then that self-worth is brittle and ephemeral, extant only in the context of those certificates or that adulation. But the real Mckoy is self-esteem that derives from your own conviction about your worth as a human being. I am reminded of the late Paul Scofield, the towering British stage actor, who was regarded in English theatre as the natural heir to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. He was thrice offered a knighthood but declined, saying, “It is just not an aspect of life that I would want. If you want a title, what’s wrong with Mr?” His self-worth was so staunchly grounded within himself that “Sir” was a pointless, meaningless tag.
All this is not to say that the approval of others is of no consequence. Approval and recognition are important as a means of validating our self-esteem. (In the case of Scofield, the Oscar and the string of other awards he won for his portrayal in “A Man for All Seasons” was a professional accolade that vindicated his sense of self-worth). But external accolades should not be our primary – or, worse, our sole – source of self-esteem. That should come from within.
Are you in the right job? If the biggest plus you derive from your present field of work is the money, obviously there’s a lot you can do with the money; but take a closer look at what your work – money apart – is doing to your life. Some questions to ask yourself:
» Do I have a strong sense of purpose connected with my work?
» Does my work reflect my values?
» Does my work leave me time to participate in things I believe are worthwhile?
» Do I dislike my job but can’t afford to leave it?
» Is my life whole? Do all the pieces – my job, finances, relationships, values – fit together?
There’s a big difference between “making a living” and “making a life”. Does making a living feel more like making a dying? If your present job is potentially taking years off your life, you need to take a call on whether this job is something you are prepared to live without – even if it means switching lanes so that your earnings are somewhat lower. Around 60% of the Dutch work part-time – a far larger number than in any other affluent country. Shorter working hours, studies have shown, reduce stress, improve family relationships and even increase productivity.
Are you at peace with money? If you stress about money, you’re not alone: a growing number of people are today living beyond their means, don’t have a clear plan to solve their financial problems, and – no matter how much more they make from year to year – never feel they have enough money. This is not just about human greed, or about confusing “happiness” with the pleasure and short-lived thrill that come from buying something new; it’s also about human frailty and, once again, it’s about deriving your self-worth chiefly from what you are able to flaunt before others.
When you’re frantically flailing away at the gerbil wheel because you’ve chosen the goods life over the good life, it’s a never-ending slog. The key to avoiding this type of financial stress is simple, but not always easy: Live within your means. This can be a difficult change at first, but if you don’t get on to that learning curve and discipline yourself to spend less than you make, you will always be scrambling around in a bog of financial stress because no amount of money will be enough for you. As Oscar Wilde said, “I am dying beyond my means.” Are you?
Being smart with the money you already make is a far more effective way to life satisfaction than making more and ever more money. It’s what all the closet millionaires know – and do. Here are some ideas for making your money go further toward bringing you happiness.
» Be Smart With Spending. Before you buy new things, think about whether they will really improve your quality of life, or if they’ll just cause you stress (from having less money) and eventually add clutter to your home. Many people are using a good amount of space in their homes to store things they bought on a whim and seldom use. Being smarter with the money you have means watching out for spending you can do without – too many dinners out, new clothes you don’t need – and spending your money on things that will truly make you happy.
» Collect experiences, not stuff. If you spend your money in ways that are in alignment with your values, interests and passions, you will become more of a do-er than a have-er. Fulfilment, as well as our most cherished memories, come from experiences. And meaningful experiences come from things like recreational pursuits, or from spending time with family, particularly in togetherness activities like weekend hiking or going on a picnic.
Again, this is not to say that possessions don’t have a place in our lives. You can have fond memories of spotting, thinking about, saving for, shopping for, and using possessions that mean a lot to you or that you like a lot, and there is nothing wrong with that, whether it’s an Apple iPhone 7 Plus or a pair of Chanel sunglasses. The problem arises only when you’re buying obsessively, just to make a style or wealth statement, or buying pointless stuff that happens to catch your eye but very soon ends up being junked – and when you’re making possessions rather than experiences your top priority.
Don’t get gypped by the hucksters. Up until the last few decades, consumerism was a four-letter word. Today, most of us have become completely conditioned by marketers and advertisers to believe that we need to buy to be satisfied, that we can’t do it on our own without their product. Refuse to believe it. Re-cycle, re-use, re-learn the lost skills of repairing, mending, darning, DIY, in short. Use your magnificent mind to problem-solve.
The concept of ‘voluntary simplicity’ has been gaining popularity since the 1990s. Reducing your wants begins in your mind. Simplify, simplify. Realize that everything you own owns you. Adopt the habits of many Europeans and enjoy fewer, but better, things. And give stress the thumbs-down.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)