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Stress - It's Nature's Plan

Excerpted from

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse


We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones, pronounced Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, his magnificent treatise on the new science known as evolutionary psychology.

Natural selection, this new science supposes, might have favored early humans who were uneasy, distrustful, inclined to assume the worst about life and one another. Much romanticized literature today posits that ancient members of genus Homo were blissful children wandering through pastures singing, only later to become corrupted by greed, religious lies, and sinister patriarchal social structures. Unfortunately, as Steven LeBlanc, an anthropologist at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and others have shown, most anthropology suggests that prehistoric humanity was violent and predatory; people killed one another often, and endured regular suffering.2 Early humans who were generous or merry or experienced awestruck wonder at their dew-kissed world might have been wiped out in the pitiless primordial competition for resources, while those who could never feel content no matter how much they piled up, but always sought to take more, were the ones who endured, reproduced, and passed their generic sequences down to us. Thus are we born with DNA coded for discontentment, because in our past, discontent was a survival strategy.

This does not mean we are fated to a primordial psychology. Genes only create proclivities, they are not destiny; a coming chapter will focus on the aspects of life that reward goodness, and urge us to walk the gentle path. But if we are descended from men and women who lived a fretful, suffering existence and could never feel at ease no matter how much they acquired, perhaps it is no surprise that, even as living standards, longevity, and liberty keep rising in the modern West, people have trouble feeling good about it. From an evolutionary standpoint, it may be that we are intended to feel unhappy regarding our circumstances. Certainly the prevalence in human bodies of the hormone Cortisol suggests this. What is Cortisol? The hormone that triggers stress. To nature, stress is a beneficial condition, and stress nature has engineered us to feel.

"Stress is inevitable and not necessarily bad," says Bruce McEwen, a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York and a leading authority on the biology of stress. In reaction to adrenaline, which is often pumping through the human body in tiny amounts, and in reaction to certain mediating proteins, a small area of the human brain called the amygdala signals the body to secrete Cortisol and other hormones that engender stress. Noise, sudden movements, anxiety, perceived dangers, or merely the daily circumstances of life can activate the process. Stress hormones heighten awareness of surroundings, slightly improve vision and hearing, and make muscles work slightly better. This is the main reason researchers believe that the stress response evolved in mammals, and the main reason they guess that the forebears of humanity who were favored by natural selection were the ones more likely to be stress-prone. "Stress protects," McEwen says. "Stressed-out people are wary of circumstances and plan obsessively to avoid dangers, whereas happy-go-lucky people may not notice they are walking into a trap."

In ancient days, stress made our forebears more likely to see predatory animals lurking in the distance-lions, perhaps, assuming we are all descended from Africans-or to hear the approach of warring parties of others like ourselves. Thus, presumably, it was the stress-prone Homo sapiens who came out ahead in the contest for survival of the fittest. Today, stress helps us cross the street without being hit by cars, or drive seventy-five miles per hour with other cars mere feet away and remain wary enough to avoid them. Try to cross an intersection on any suburban boulevard anywhere in the contemporary United States and you'd better have a stress response; you'll need the heightened awareness to avoid being mowed down by SUVs.

More generally, stress is a coping mechanism for the demands of life. Studies show that successful or high-income people tend to have more Cortisol pumping through their system than others. Whether the pressures of their positions cause the stress or the stress response helps them attain their positions is impossible to say. But since less-successful or lower-income people also exist under pressure, especially money pressure, and exhibit fewer stress indicators than the successful, it's fair to speculate that those stressed out men and women who rise to the top are in some fashion aided by stress. (Studies also show that the obsessive-compulsive tend to be more successful than society as a whole, suggesting natural selection may have favored this condition as well.) So stress can be good-but still unpleasant. Research further shows that highly successful Type-A people, the ones most likely to suffer stress symptoms, are twice as likely as the population at large to describe themselves as "very unhappy."

Tags: Personal Growth