Stress, Happiness and Our Social Structure

I recently watched a National Geographic documentary called, Stress: The Portrait of a Killer. (You can find it on Netflix.) The entire documentary discussed the physiology and effects of social stress on our bodies and the sources of this epidemic of chronic stress in our modern lives.

Did you know the American Psychological Association reports about 75% of the population attests to feeling stressed regularly, and a third of all Americans report extreme stress?

Yeah, I think it’s about time we start analyzing what we’re doing here.

31/365 - Stress.
(Photo Source)

The Physiology of Stress

If you’re not familiar with stress, I’m going to give you an oversimplified idea of what exactly it is: Stress is the physiological state our bodies take on when we perceive danger or are in any situation which requires an increased reaction.

Our adrenaline pumps, our heart races and we end up with more blood to our muscles to help us run away from the flesh-eating lions. Or bad guys.

Or these days, traffic.

What originated as an occasional life-saving response to certain dangerous situations has become an everyday response to everyday situations.

Our bodies can’t differentiate between becoming something’s dinner and forgetting to pick up dinner on the way home.

And the effects of stress are pretty huge: a weakened immune system, imbalanced hormones, belly fat, heart disease, fetal disruption in pregnant woman, improper body function (because stress hormones shut down all but the essential systems in your body to help you survive an attack…as the documentary stated, you don’t need to be ovulating when you’re running for your life), and even diminishing brain cells.

That last one probably explains a lot.

Of particular interest, though, were the two studies portrayed in the search for causes to our excessive stress in modern day living:

  1. A long-term study done on baboons (the most diabolical, back-stabbing and malicious of primates, they said). These guys all had the same diet, the same living conditions, but also had a hierarchy in their tribe.
  2. A European corporation where each person had identical health care benefits, but which also had a definite, established hierarchy. Can you see where they were going with this?

In each study the subject’s stress levels, health, happiness, ability to handle illness and life expectancy hinged not on their health care, but on where they ranked in the hierarchy.

The lower on the totem pole, the more stress and negative health impacts you experienced and the less happy you were.

The higher up, the healthier you were and longer you lived.

This was universal, across the board, in humans and animals and in multiple studies. Social ranking affects us. Social stress hurts us.

Our Social Structure is Killing Us

Do you see it too?

Our entire social structure – from politics to work to school to family life – is built upon a hierarchy.

In the political world, the very politicians who are meant to represent our choices make decisions without us. We make calls, we threaten, we argue and debate, we shake our fists and stress ourselves out over their misdeeds. Then out of fear – or possibly exhaustion – we vote them back in.

They control every aspect of our lives and freedoms
and we feel helpless.

At work, we have no autonomy, are spoken down to, mistrusted and lament that every moment of our work day (and many moments outside of work) are decided for us. Every deed is judged, our deadlines are tightened and we’re made to juggle more than we can handle. Work and life satisfaction mean little and we toe the line to meet the boss’s bottom line.

We sign over our lives for the false
promise of security.

School is probably the most obvious. Constant scrutiny and judgment, condescension, lack of respect for personal choices (we at least choose our jobs and our politicians, to some extent)…most students aren’t even allowed to control their own bodies and are told when to eat and pee and how fast to do it. Their work is criticized in front of their peers and every moment is determined and judged by someone else’s standards.

Instead of ensuring success, it’s training us for
more of the same.

And family life is not much different. Rights and “privileges” are doled out by one or two established rulers, based on age and accomplishments. Choices are not mutually agreed upon. Again, even basic body functions – such as hunger or sleep – are not entrusted to the people to whom they belong. Autonomy is lost. Trust is compromised. And we all suffer.

After a lifetime of practice,
it’s hard to see another possible way to interact.

We learn it as toddlers, it’s reestablished as children and teens, and by the time we’re adults it’s so firmly ingrained in our way of thinking that we can’t get out from under it.

We’re training stress, disease and unhappiness into our culture.

Science Reaffirms The Alternative

Don’t you love when you know the answer and science backs up your own experiences?

This documentary and all the research reaffirmed what many of us already know: that there are two main determiners to decreased social stress, increased health and long-term happiness.:

Autonomy. And connection.

(Could it be any more tailored to the message of this blog?)

Every study in the documentary showed that environments lacking an authoritative or authoritarian leader, places that we feel in control and conditions where the general energy is cooperative, mutually respectful and built on the premise of equality that stress levels and health issues were dramatically decreased.

The more choices you  control, the more time you spend on the things of your choosing and the more equal freedom you enjoy in your life, the healthier and happier you’ll be.

The research and studies also showed why: humans (and primates) that felt a part of a compassionate, connected and mutually respectful tribe increase something called telomerase, an enzyme used to mend our cells and keep us healthy.

Yup, that’s right…

Things like love, laughter, a feeling of belonging, caring for one another, autonomy, validation, equality and generosity actually HEALS our bodies.

It’s everything I’ve talked about in Being Organic: An Invitation to Change Your World.

It’s organic learning, organic living, organic Being.

And in the coming months this blog is going to evolve to reflect that even more. Subscribe, sign up and stay tuned.

So, now I’m turning this post over to you…

What are the things in your life that are causing you social stress or providing you healing?

What is it that is fostering connection and autonomy, both personally and in your relationships?

Because the science is in and our health depends on it.