Opinion | Columns

The causes of stress: An assessment

Jake Goldwasser, in his column of Sept. 18, has intervened in the ongoing campus debate about stress and wellness to assert that “my stress is mostly my own fault.” I single out Goldwasser’s attitude because it is emblematic of an occasional but unfortunate subcurrent in the conversation around these issues, an eddy of thought that tends to go something like this: If only everyone would just calm down, and eat more kale, and abandon their faddish resistance to going to bed before 3 a.m., and look at things clearly and correctly, our problems would prove to be illusory. This attitude, regardless of its alleged Stoic pedigree, strikes me as both deeply unhelpful and intellectually indefensible.

To start, Goldwasser ignores the issue of mental illness, and those for whom the admonishment that ‘it’s your own fault’ is but an unfortunate reminder of retrograde assumptions. This is perhaps unfair to Goldwasser, since he makes the claim explicitly only on his own behalf. By committing his ruminations to print, however, he presumably intends them to be of some general relevance. Still, in the interests of charity, I will assume that his argument is directed only at the “ordinary” stressed Columbian, although I would claim that such a demarcation may not be as straightforward as this simplification would suggest.

The attitude I wish to criticize seems to rest on two premises. First, that the condition of stress that so many of us would attribute to ourselves represents some aberration from what Goldwasser would call the “normal, human” state of things, and thus requires special explanation. And second, that various possible external explanations for this condition are inadequate, leaving us with no one to blame but ourselves.

I’ll come back to that first premise. The second seems vulnerable to many, fairly obvious, objections. Many would be quick to adduce the bleak economic prospects facing soon-to-be college graduates, of whose terrors there are bards far more capable than I. The external factor most commonly cited, though, at least in these pages, is Columbia itself.

I have no desire to absolve the University administration of responsibility, or to suggest that there are not many concrete steps it could and ought take to improve student well-being—reform of Counseling and Psychological Services being one widely endorsed example. I would suggest, however, that the influence of Columbia’s policies on our stress is less fundamental than might sometimes be supposed. Most of us will likely never again have so many aspects of our lives enveloped within a single institution. And yet Columbia, at least considered as an administrative unit, merely makes possible many interactions whose actual course it does not control. The doubt that accompanies our academic experiences here and the variety of personal relationships we form here are both legitimate possible stressors that do, and certainly ought, stretch beyond the administration’s ken.

There are also broader cultural factors at work. I was reminded of this in reading Sarina Bhandari’s excellent column of Sept. 10, in which she argues that perhaps the most important cause of stress is our belief “that stress is a part of, if not integral to, the idea of success.” Pessimists might suggest that such a belief is just a sound empirical generalization. But I suspect it goes deeper than that. This anxious need for productive activity, even when it brings us no tangible reward, reminds me of Max Weber and his suggestion that what was culturally unique about modern capitalism was not some discovery that it would be really nice to have more stuff. Rather, capitalism was culturally distinguished by just this sort of compulsion—given its original nervous energy by religious fears —to produce and produce into the indefinite future, without consumption or respite.

Finally, one could challenge the first premise alluded to above. Can we really be so sure that some sort of enlightened calm is the norm, that the injection of unease into the human condition is something quite unnatural, demanding a tidy explanation? I suspect that Goldwasser’s confidence in this regard stems from an idealized reading of life in other times and places. We should consider the possibility that the lifestyles we decry as stressful may not always be a cause, but rather an effect of—perhaps a particular form of adaptation to—a deeper unease.

I don’t mean to make a quietist point, to suggest that we should simply stand in Goldwasser’s cosmic stupor in the face of the mystery of the “human condition,” or that we should give up reforming Columbia because the damage was already done in 16th-century Geneva. Nor would I even reject the notion that how we react to events, rather than the events themselves, can have a larger impact on our experience of well-being than we may realize. I merely want to emphasize one of the most basic, dim-witted points one can make about anything: The causes of stress are complicated, and serious, and any prospective solutions no less so. To pretend otherwise, to oversimplify the causal factors at work and tidily assign blame, is not productive, and certainly not humane.

Henry Willson is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy. He is secretary general of CMUNNY 8 and a former photo editor for Spectator. Willful Meandering usually runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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