Stressed Americans not so Happy

Susan Cooke

Why aren’t we Americans higher on lists of countries in which people are the happiest and healthiest? This is in essence what much of my book is about, but let’s just look at a few things for now.

One problem common to many of us is cascading stress and worry that can begin at any time, but often occurs because we haven’t slept enough. Among other bad things this does to us it usually means we’re late for work which just adds to the stress load. Stress and worry often are the reasons why we couldn’t sleep, so if they’re still bothering us on the way to work, we add even more to our stress load.

Maybe we were worrying because we felt we had to finish something for work that seemed an emergency so we didn’t  go to bed near on time. Or we went to bed but woke up at 2 am worrying about the work or the job itself, or about how to get a less stressful job that might pay less but would at least pay the bills (but what would people say?) or worried about our kid(s), spouse, friend, or a conflict we had with someone. Or we might be in physical pain and the pain keeps us up but we don’t want to take too many painkillers, or we desperately need a vacation or some kind of downtime and how can we possibly get it or afford to go much of anywhere even if we do get it, or how can we get the neighbors to stop using leaf-blowers so much so we can enjoy our own yard more and not be so constantly desperate to get away to someplace quiet, etc.

Once we’ve made it to work we have to hurry to get in gear and produce even though we’re tired from so little sleep. We have to be sure not to snap at someone just because we’re worried and exhausted.  We wish we had a job that didn’t take so much out of us or a boss who believed in a less arduous schedule, but who has time to find one and would our commute be even worse than it is now?

For many of us in our country, this is daily life. It probably is similar in other countries in which people live our lifestyle or try to. Many of these issues feel even worse in our chaotic, loud, crazy cities than they might in more rural areas, though those not in cities go through a lot of this too.

One thing my research has revealed to me is that it’s much harder to slow this whole process of living at high speed and often near-panic when many people around us are living at the same pace. Yet if we don’t slow down our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are likely to remain high, making a slew of illnesses more possible for us due to the inflammation caused by stress. (You probably know this already, but inflammation seems to be the source of many of our illnesses.)

I write a great deal about the staggering effects of stress on people, and I find that Americans seem to have a unique brand of stressful lifestyle and approach to life that’s extra tricky and tough to battle. Not that we all willingly choose to live this way. Many of us are simply infused with a work ethic that seems oriented toward acquiring fame or power or at least being near the top of the competition most of the time (in addition to more money, that while up to a certain number of dollars is helpful, may in fact be unnecessary in larger amounts for us to be happy. Yet we’re not necessarily aware, or maybe we forget sometimes, of how trapped in this vortex we can become. We’re too busy just trying to get through it all.

The need for fame or wealth beyond what’s practical or pretty okay may come partly from a completely understandable craving to matter in this world, to be known as someone who walked this earth and made something happen that was good or useful. But there are many ways to be good and useful without shortening our lives from stress in the process. It helps to accept that not every one of us can be high-profile. Certainly most of us can’t be super-wealthy. So if we turn out to be one of the majority who are not going to be famous or wealthy, we can reduce our stress and our constant speeding through life to get wherever we’re trying so hard to go by accepting that and getting on with the business of living a meaningful life that makes us and a few others happy. I absolutely believe this is possible, though it would help us all if we got a little support from government and businesses. They can help by learning about what helps people become happy and healthy, and a big part of what I try to do is show them the research on this. It can help them help us to thrive.

Here are not all, but a few things, most suggested by research, that can help us and help our leaders help us:

Access to nature close to home most days (without industrial noise)–so more quiet local parks and gardens not filled with traffic noise and fumes

Access to safe places to move and exercise outside in bright light, away from traffic & other industrial noise & fumes

Access to many easy places to meet and socialize with those living near us, places such as coffee shops and cafes, ideally including outdoor seating, and ideally away from traffic, near home so we can walk to them

Noise and fume laws that are well enforced, so that wellbeing doesn’t continue to plummet due to bullying by thousands of leaf-blowers and other loud, unhealthy lawn equipment (leaf-blower fumes especially are truly dangerous to our health due to their particulates highly suspected to cause cancer, and leaf-blower noise is extremely bad for mental health, causing misery for millions around the world)

Access to abundant healthy organic plant food for all in even the poorest neighborhoods, through stores, farmers’ markets, and community gardens

Highest quality efficient transportation services so we can get where we need to go without added cascades of stress hormones

Higher minimum wage, and more time off for everyone; Americans are absurdly and dangerously overworked, and many are absurdly and dangerously underpaid. These are both recipes for extreme stress and shortened lives.

Homes for every single person. There are many exciting and innovative ways to do this. It can be done and we must do it. No more homelessness is necessary.  Look at Los Angeles for starters.

Drastic reduction of firearms across the country. The U.S. gun prevalence is absurd, barbaric, cruel, and beneath the dignity of a supposedly advanced country considered (at one time) to lead the world

Good health care for everyone including the homeless (who we’re going to house ASAP, right?)

Tax breaks and other aids and incentives for everyone to have a garden, large or tiny

Education (especially for the President and EPA) and directions for all in taking immediate steps to stop pollution and global warming, using gardens, green roofs, conservation in general, solar panels in more places (with more help in paying for them), more parks, more trees (again more nature also does wonders for our wellbeing, too, but it must be away from industrial noise and fumes to work the most magic, and we need to drastically reduce all such fumes to help global warming anyway)

Kindness and respect for others’ desperate need for quiet and nature. Caring for others’ peace of mind–why they need some quiet–includes such thoughtful acts as not turning on speaker phones or shouting into phones so everyone in the cafe or park must listen to only that person and is forced by them to stop their own conversation, reading, or thinking. In other words not invading each others’ sound space which we do throughout our current society indoors and out to a degree that everyone’s stress hormones must surely be at way above normal levels most of the day. We cannot close our ears the way we close our eyes, and most of us can’t carry around noise-cancelling headphones, nor should we feel forced to wear them just to keep our own stress levels down. Public service announcements would help a lot with this problem since so many people seem unaware of the damage they’re doing to fellow citizens.

I’ll write more on noise later–it’s a huge problem–but it helps to make sure our government leaders know the World Health Organization (WHO) considers loud industrial noise to be so damaging that it calls it a worldwide health emergency.

 

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