PUMPING IRONY: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A new study suggests that those who feel their life is calm are less likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses. Count me in.

Several years ago, My Lovely Wife and I started a newspaper. It was something of a dream of mine, but it ended rather poorly. We lost our house, our car, and pretty much had to start over from scratch, financially speaking. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

What it taught me was that no matter how dismal things seem to be, you can still get out of bed every morning and look for your next opportunity. I know that sounds clichéd, but it was true. As a result, I embraced my inner Bob Marley, and my mantra became: “Don’t worry, be happy.” After all the anxiety of making a payroll, selling ads, cranking out reams of copy, and holding off creditors, I found myself captive to a kind of stress I’d never experience before. At one point, my right shoulder seized up and I had to seek medical attention.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to manage my stress levels. Hence, I spend 15 or so minutes every morning in meditation, paying close attention to my breath and, I’ve been told, lowering my blood pressure and foiling that nasty inflammation-inducing hormone, cortisol.

Can Stress Actually Be Good For You?

The research around stress, however, is not nearly so conclusive as my inclination. A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that “acute” stress is actually good for you. It sharpens your awareness and can improve your performance in any number of areas. As the study’s coauthor, Elizabeth Kirby, noted, “I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.”

She agrees that chronic stress, that day-to-day heightening of tensions brought on by, among other things, long commutes, tense meetings, and dysfunctional relationships, can lead to serious health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and depression. The ultimate message of her study, however, is a positive one, she notes. “Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”

And that’s an interesting point, in my view. What if you’re generally oblivious to the stressful conditions in your life? What if that 45-minute commute to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic is spent listening to Bob Marley? And what if you typically float through business meetings in a daydream and learned long ago to say, “Yes, dear” to any request from your partner? In other words, what if you have no idea that your life is packed full of stress?

According to a group of European researchers, people who don’t believe they lead a stressful life are much less likely than people who are attuned to their daily stress to suffer from heart disease and other stress-induced medical conditions. This, to my way of thinking, is a pure scientific validation of the value of obliviousness — one of my primary skill sets. If I understand the study’s conclusions, which involved more than 7,000 people for a period of 18 years, the less aware you are of the stressful forces in your life, the healthier you’ll be.

I’m not sure that what we’re talking about here is a blanket denial of tension and strife, though I’m willing to entertain that possibility. I think it’s more about putting life’s little challenges in their proper perspective. Nothing on the horizon, in other words, is so hopeless or daunting or impenetrable to generate the kind of angst that hovers over so many of our lives. We are remarkably resilient creatures. We just don’t think of ourselves that way most of the time. What this latest research tells me is that we have quite a bit of control over how we deal with stress. And we can choose, as I have, to just let it go.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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