Why Are We So Stressed Out?

The pursuit of wealth may be derailing us from finding happiness

The more people value such goals, the lower their personal wellbeing, says Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser, Ph.D., who has studied materialism. What we do to get those things comes at the expense of relationships and community involvement that give us a sense of safety, competence, relatedness and autonomy—all psychological needs associated with wellbeing.

“One of the things that is so psychologically appealing about materialism is that it is a culturally sanctioned path to feel like you can be safe and secure,” says Kasser, author of the 2002 book The High Price of Materialism. “ The research shows that this attempt doesn’t work very well, as people who care a good deal about materialism are still relatively unhappy.”

But if the quest for money and status are causing more stress over the long term, the depressed economy and other world events are having a more immediate and acute effect. A Gallup survey released on New Year’s Day 2010 found that slightly more Americans felt more stressed out last year than in 2008, with the most worrisome days coinciding with major financial and world events, such as the day after the House passed the stimulus bill, when Citigroup asked the government to bail it out on the same day the Dow closed near a 12-year low, and the day seven U.S. troops died in Afghanistan (Michael Jackson’s memorial service was also being televised that day). Americans’ happiest days coincided with national holidays typically spent with family and friends like Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving.

The American Psychological Association found similar trends in its most recent Stress in America survey. Some 42 percent of people questioned last year said their stress had increased since 2008 and a quarter rated their stress as high. Yet those rates were lower than in the 2008 survey, which found 47 percent of people reported greater stress than the year before. The biggest sources of stress were money, work and the economy. Women rated higher than men, especially mothers. They reported higher stress as well as symptoms of anxiety, like insomnia, overeating and headaches.

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