In a previous post about healthcare in the United States, I talked a little bit about stress and its role in health. With this post, I’d like to delve a little bit more into its prevalence in American society. In order to do this, I’ll be summarizing and analyzing the latest stress report from the APA–the American Psychological Association–entitled, “Stress in America: Paying with our health.” You can find the full report here. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly encourage everyone to read it. I’ll then provide my own insight into the matter. First, a little background.
The APA has been conducting this study since 2007. That’s not a terribly long time for any long term trends to emerge, but I think the data is still valid and relevant for a short term snapshot of the American psyche. This last survey was conducted in February of 2015. 3,068 adults were included in the survey, which was conducted by Harris Poll. There were 1,204 men and 1,864 women across all generations and all regions of the US. Now, to the results.
The top causes of stress
The top four things that cause us stress are:
- Money (64% of respondents)
- Work (60%)
- Family responsibilities (47%)
- Health concerns (46%)
Money, not surprisingly, is the top concern of most people and the biggest cause of stress. 54% of those surveyed reported having “just enough or not enough money to make ends meet at the end of the month.” Specifically, Americans worry about paying for unexpected expenses, essentials, and saving for retirement. Unexpected expenses are a big one, considering the plight of the average American.
62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts, and 21% don’t even have a savings account at all. That means that, in the big picture, a whopping 83% of Americans don’t have enough money to pay for something big that happens out of the blue: an injury, a car repair, etc. It’s no wonder that the average American has $4,717 in credit card debt, and US credit card debt currently totals close to one TRILLION dollars.
The financial picture is just as bleak when it comes to retirement. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me:
Clearly, the average American is not prepared to retire. This means that they have to work longer, which is a source of stress. However, the impact of not being able to retire goes beyond simple stress. Aging workers are more likely to suffer injuries on the job. They’re also more likely to have chronic health problems, which means they use their insurance more than younger workers. Ultimately this means that employers wind up paying more for an aging workforce.
But how does money specifically impact individual health? Well, according to the survey, nearly 20% of American report skipping or thinking about delaying visits to the doctor. 32% of Americans say that they don’t have enough money to live a healthy lifestyle. It also affects relationships. 41% of respondents with a spouse or partner reported that stress had caused problems in their relationship.
But perhaps the biggest effect on our health is how we manage stress. Spoiler alert, it’s very poorly. In order to deal with stress, the Average American will 1) Watch television, 2) Surf the internet, 3) Sleep/nap, 4) eat, 5) Drink, 6) Smoke. The order of those things changes depending on which generation you’re surveying, but you’ll notice two general things about all of those activities: they’re either sedentary or they’re actively bad for you. And about 20% of Americans say they don’t engage in any sort of activity at all to manage stress.
Now, let’s talk about some of the good things to come out of the survey.
First, self-reported stress is down. Yay! On a scale of 0-10, Americans in 2015 had an average stress level of 4.9 , which is down from 6.2 in 2007. However, that’s still far short of the level of stress that Americans think is a healthy level–3.7. Also, the number of Americans who say that stress has a “very strong or strong” impact on their physical and mental health appears to be decreasing as well.
Okay, now for some thoughtful analysis. First off, I think it’s very tempting for some people and pundits to look at this data and say, “Well if those lower income people would stop spending their money on fancy phones and tattoos and all that garbage they’d have more money left over!” It’s a new variation on the old “Welfare Queen” trope and quite frankly it’s pitifully stupid. The data clearly show that this isn’t the case. 53% of Americans reported using coupons or shopping during sales this year, 52% are cooking more at home, and 51% are cutting back on non-essentials. In short, people are tightening their belts, contrary to the conservative narrative. Now, does that mean that there aren’t people out their who spend and manage their money poorly? Of course those people exist. But they’re the exception, not the standard. And they even include wealthy people–actors and professional athletes can go broke making stupid purchases, too.
Second, there have been lots of reports about how, “The middle class is shrinking because more of them moved into a higher class!” Well, that’s certainly a nice talking point, as you can see in this article. And there’s even recent data that shows that median household income has nudged upward. However, let’s keep several things in mind.
“Middle class” is a relative term. It’s simply a multiplier of the poverty level. Also, it’s not a reflection of purchasing power. It’s not a statement on inflation. I can make more money, but if the price of goods increases at a rate greater than my income, the extra income means nothing. Similarly, if my debt increases, the extra income also means less. My newfound income may also push me into a higher tax bracket. In short, it’s entirely possible to make more money but be worse off than you were before. Being “middle class” or “upper middle class” is a purely linguistic term, and it’s very subjective. And if this report is any indication, any new income gained by the average American has not done much to impact the level of stress they feel regarding money. Which leads me to my last point, which is more philosophical in nature.
People who regularly read this blog know that I’m not a big fan of money. I hate it. I hate the way it’s used, I hate the way it’s idolized. At the same time, I recognize that in our society money is obviously necessary. I have to eat, put a roof over my head, etc. But the problem with money isn’t a conceptual one. I have no qualms with the idea of creating a system wherein we have a currency that represents labor. The problem is a cultural one, how we promote and utilize such a system.
In American culture, money has become synonymous with success. The more money you have, the more successful you are. The more material objects you own, the more successful you are. Indeed, it’s ingrained into the American psyche that spending money is tantamount to patriotism. Remember W imploring everyone to go out to mall or the terrorists will win? In the grand scheme of things, our society promotes money over all else.
It promotes money over science: the fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars every year trying to discredit climate science and buy legislation.
It promotes money over public policy: The NRA and gun control. Lobbying by the food industry (hello soda and corn products!)
It promotes money over family: We spend much more time working than we do with our family and in our relationships.
It promotes money over the environment: Who cares about pollution if it provides us with cheap goods?
And it promotes money over health as the survey here shows.
But even if money is necessary, is it really important? And more crucially, is it really the metric we should all be using for success? Who lived the richer life: the man who died wealthy but never knew his kids or the person who lived a modest life and spent more time with their family? I realize that’s a subjective call, but my point is that culturally, we as a society only view one of them as being successful.
As a final thought about money, stress, and society, I would encourage everyone to read this article. It’s about a book written by a palliative care nurse who recorded the regrets of the dying patients that she took care of. Here’s the list of what people reported regretting on their deathbeds the most according to this nurse’s experiences:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
I would argue that what society tells us we should value really isn’t what we inherently want to value. And that disconnect more than anything is probably the biggest cause of stress in our lives.