Stress can kill, in terms of causing suicides and the onset of other conditions, and it would be foolish to say otherwise. Stress has and will always exist, and we need to look at how we manage stress in the 21st Century. The first thing you can not do is remove the activities people find stressful, as it is so subjective, although I acknowledge systems like the welfare state could be made easier to avoid unnecessary stress.
Throughout history, stress has been ‘managed’ through vices like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sexual activity and now food. These solutions have never resolved the problems causing stress but simply masked the problem, allowing people to temporarily escape themselves. Any period of history shows that that happiness was not the norm for most people, and vices were often culturally mandated.
Over the last century, attitudes towards health and vices have radically changed. As science gave evidence on the physical harm vices cause, ignoring the emotional benefits, vices have been criminalised and/or demonised. We should not smoke, drink too much if any alcohol, not take drugs, and now the food we love is being demonised as we speak. Vices have kept those in poverty or hardship afloat in terms of their mental wellbeing. As society pushed people off cigarettes and towards unhealthy food, we can understand why we now have a big obesity and diabetes issue.
We are now left with no vices for people to take legal and moral comfort in. This means to stop stress leading to more serious mental health issues, we need to radically rethink the toolkit to managing and embracing stress. To do this, I believe we need to make the pursuit of long term happiness a reality for the masses, radically redefining the nature and purpose of society.
Research has shown that long-term happiness, feeling contented with life, does not stem from money or health, but feeling and being in control of as much as their life as possible. I would question how many people feel happy or are even pursuing happiness? It is not about smiling all the time, but a self-belief you are on the road you want to be on. And remaining happy is a job in itself only achievable when people have the right tools to assess where they are and want to be.
Explaining what changes we need in society to achieve this new focus on mental wellbeing as a pursuit for happiness would take a few PhDs, and it is not something that could be done overnight, taking a generation or two to achieve. However, if we wish to solve issues like obesity without simply creating new vices to mask the general unhappiness, radical solutions must be found to how we properly manage stress and offer the opportunity of happiness.
As well as changing the bigger picture, we can all start thinking about what we need to do to pursue happiness for ourselves, looking at all aspects of our life from our employment to our relationships with family and friends, something I have tried to do for many years. It can often begin by acknowledging when we are unhappy and what causes us stress. It can be a long and painful process that may never end, but I believe the pursuit of happiness is something we should all value.