We in the developed world are the wealthiest, safest, healthiest, best educated and best connected people that have ever lived on planet earth and yet, there seems to be an epidemic of stress and mental illness. In spite of the almost limitless opportunities, many people experience their life with a feeling of dread, unprecedented pressure and dissatisfaction. On the face of it, this seems absurd but never the less, is a fact of modern living.
To understand this phenomena we need to understand what we mean by stress and what are its causes. The dictionary definition says ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’. This is somewhat perplexing when we have already established that we Westerners are living in the least adverse and demanding physical circumstances of any population in history. Is it that we have become fragile and hypersensitive to the slightest demand on us or could there be another reason?
The physical causes of mental and emotional stress have been understood for a long time. People refer to adrenaline and cortisol when talking about the ‘stress hormones’. These are the main emergency hormones that produce the so called ‘fight or flight’ response. Their main actions include increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, increases the amount of air going into the lungs and so oxygen to the muscles and brain, enlarging the pupil in the eye, sending more blood to the muscles and increasing blood sugar levels in the brain. These action give us a short burst of extra energy and strength to fight off an attacker or to make a quick retreat from perceived danger. These actions are meant to be fairly short lived to allow us to survive an immediate life threatening situation. If they continue for a longer time we feel them as the symptoms of stress.
Although a significant contributor, the ‘flight or flight’ reaction does not strike me as the likely candidate for the chronic stress many of us feel about modern life. So what other factors should we consider? If we take a step back and notice what is different about the modern world compared to the past, one answer is our ‘almost limitless opportunities’. Is it possible that not only do adrenaline and cortisol kick in at times of danger but also at times of opportunity.
My point is, we don’t just experience the rush of adrenaline and cortisol when we are in danger but also when we spot a resource or opportunity that we might be able to exploit. It makes sense that the more opportunities we notice and exploit the more successful we will be in surviving and reproducing. So the survival hormone rush occurs whenever we have the opportunity to increase our chances of survival, be that to overcome danger or to acquire useful resources.
We are programmed by our nature to scan the world for potential resources to exploit, and then to experience a hormone rush when we notice one. This is so that we focus our full attention and energy on acquiring them. Then how could the modern world be exaggerating this instinct? Well, what has changed in the past hundred years?
The answer might be the combination of television, advertising and social media platforms. They bombard us with images of potential worlds and choices that we might have never considered without them. Choices like what to post on our Facebook or Instagram page to make us look as interesting as everyone else, which clothes and makeup will make us more attractive, which car will make us feel and look fantastic and what district has the best school to give our prodigy the best chance of going to the right university. Even which brand of ketchup to buy that will fit all the images of our ‘ideal self’ that have been propagated by the marketing and lifestyle gurus.
So my point is, it is not that the modern world is more dangerous than the past but it's the constant bombardment of opportunities that leave us in a constant state of alert stressfulness.