Minimizing stress in your life can have a downside

Does a lack of stress make you stupid?

The smartest advice I ever got about stress came about 40 years ago from the late Anthony Athos, at the time a senior faculty colleague of mine at Harvard Business School and a renowned master of the classroom.  (He had appeared on  the cover of Time Magazine as one of America’s greatest teachers a few years earlier.) 

“Stress,” Tony advised me, “is an addictive drug.” He compared it to amphetamines as something that can enhance performance, but that comes at a cost to one’s health and psychological wellbeing.  Stress was a design feature of life at HBS (and many of the companies that recruited its graduates), for both students and faculty. The presumption was that it would lead to greater levels of intensity of work and achievement. Competition was the key to encouraging people to push themselves hard, to go the proverbial extra mile, to discover capabilities they might not have realized they possessed. Students were graded on a mandatory curve and junior faculty going through the tenure track promotion system were even more rigorously and explicitly set against each other for career advancement.

Tony was, at the time, an unusual voice cautioning that at some point the stress itself could become harmful.

Now comes academic research (hat tip: Instapundit) that confirms that stress levels offer a tradeoff between wellbeing (for low stress) and “cognition” – mental achievement. To answer the question above: a lack of stress may limit you mental achievements.

EureakAlert, a publication of the pretigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, tells us:

David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, said the study suggests that small, daily stressors could potentially benefit the brain, despite being an inconvenience. (snip)

"The assumption has always been that stress is bad," Almeida said. "I took a step back and thought, what about the people who report never having stress? My previous work has focused on people who have higher versus lower levels of stress, but I'd never questioned what it looks like if people experience no stress. Are they the healthiest of all?"

The researchers used data from 2,711 participants for the study. Prior to the start of the study, the participants completed a short cognition test. Then, the participants were interviewed each night for eight consecutive nights, and answered questions about their mood, chronic conditions they may have, their physical symptoms -- such as headaches, coughs or sore throats -- and what they did during that day.

The participants also reported the number of stressors -- like disagreements with friends and family or a problem at work -- and the number of positive experiences, such as sharing a laugh with someone at home or work, they had experienced in the previous 24 hours.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that there did appear to be benefits for those who reported no stressors throughout the study, about 10 percent of the participants. These participants were less likely to have chronic health conditions and experience better moods throughout the day.

However, those who reported no stressors also performed lower on the cognition test, with the difference equaling more than eight years of aging. Additionally, they were also less likely to report giving or receiving emotional support, as well as less likely to experience positive things happening throughout the day.

"I think there's an assumption that negative events and positive events are these polar opposites, but in reality they're correlated," Almeida said. "But really, I think experiencing small daily stressors like having an argument with somebody or having your computer break down or maybe being stuck in traffic, I think they might be a marker for someone who has a busy and maybe full life. Having some stress is just an indicator that you are engaged in life."

Many would regard this finding as simple common sense. But the people at greatest risk for toxic levels of stress, the kind of people who rise to powerful positions in our major institutions – nearly always highly competitive sorts – tend to be immune to common sense, and need “scientific” and institutionally-backed “knowledge” (affirmed with academic studies) in  order to accept advice that might change their behavior.

Maybe this study will be of help to those who have not ever benefitted from the sort of mentoring that Professor Athos offered to me as a young scholar. These highly stressed/highly positioned people tend to have an inordinate amount of influence on the rest of us. It might help us all if they are not quite so crazed with competitiveness and stress.

Graphic credit: Pixy.org  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license