Friday, March 8, 2013

Stressed Much? You're in Good Company

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released a study called Stress in Americaconcluding that Millennials, 18 to 33-year-old 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, shoulders to the wheel and a little optimism, and the Millennials and Gen Xers will be alright, too.