Why Do We Romanticize Stress?


“Stressed” is now a status symbol and I can’t be sure exactly when it happened. Stress is widely understood to be a negative emotion, one synonymous with (or at least similar to) anxiety and unhappiness. In spite of this, I think it’s safe to assume that most of us have humble-bragged, however indirectly, about how “stressed” or “busy” we are.

I fully admit to being guilty of this. I work full-time, write part-time, and am still chipping away at two bachelors degrees. (See? Humble-bragging.) Stress is my middle name. Stress is my best friend. Stress and I go way back and meet up regularly for cocktails.

I know I’m not alone, either.

Stress and I go way back and meet up regularly for cocktails.

Everywhere I look, people around me are substituting coffee for entire food groups and adding task after task to their to-do lists. They’re putting in extra hours at the office and signing up for more university credits than they should. They do this because they believe, as I did, that surviving the tortuous schedule they’ve built for themselves will make them more successful and, by extension, happier.

We have fallen victim to the societal, culturally constructed concept that our input (the effort and energy we expend) is more vital to our success than our output (the actual value we produce).

There’s research to support this: According to a Harvard study, Americans work 50% more than Europeans. The study suggests Americans do this because of the cultural notion that hard work equals more success.

That’s why the employee who works late every night or shows up early every morning is probably more likely to get a promotion, even though a coworker who clocks out at 5:00 p.m. every day might be getting just as much work done.

Our society values input more than output.

In reality, however, the study’s data shows that Americans are not significantly more economically successful than our European counterparts, who work less and value leisure time more.

Our society values input more than output. We put all-nighters, over-exertion and inner-turmoil on pedestals. We think it’s OK, admirable even, to run on nothing but fumes and caffeine as we throw ourselves into our work.

Is that what we really want to aspire to?

Yes, there is value in hard work, but there is also value in learning how to listen to our minds and bodies and understand when we need to pull back. There is value in taking the time to care for ourselves and give our bodies what they need.

Let’s shift our focus towards building a balanced, healthy work-ethic instead:

1. Remind yourself that happiness is not an achievement. 
It’s easy to fall into the mindset that you’ll have time to be happy and enjoy yourself after you accomplish x, y, and z. However, human nature (and plenty of academic research) suggests that after each major achievement, our brain adapts and then sets its sights on a new goal. The cliché that “happiness is a journey, not a destination” holds true here. Insert activities you enjoy, self-love, self-care and relaxation into your daily pursuit of success.

2. Just go to sleep already. 

The concept that we need sleep to be successful is not new or groundbreaking, but it’s easy to disregard what we already know to be true: We will be healthier, happier, and more productive if we regularly get a full night’s rest. Make sleep a priority and take the necessary steps to make it happen, even if that means setting a regular bedtime or kicking yourself off of electronics after a certain time.

3. Work smart, not hard.

This may be the most important takeaway: Shift your point of focus to your output, not your input. Remembering that the quality of the end-product is what matters (whether that be a research paper or a work presentation) can help you streamline the process of getting there. We all know social media can be a time-suck, so install a website blocker to keep yourself off of distracting sites, roll up your sleeves, and get your work done more quickly and more productively.

Don’t romanticize stress. Don’t conflate being busy with being successful.

Your body and mind will thank you. I promise.