Stress as Personal Engagement Barometer

Excerpt from Kelly McGonigal's 99u talk, How to Turn Stress Into an Advantage

Does a country’s stress index correlate to with other indices of wellbeing, like life expectancy, GDP, the global happiness, or the satisfaction with people’s lives? It turns out that it does. But in exactly the opposite direction the researchers expected.

The higher the nations stress index, the greater the GDP and life expectancy, the more satisfied people are in that nation with their live, with their work, their communities, their own health. The happier they are. Basically the more people you have who thought yesterday was very stressful, that’s better for public health, it’s better for the economy and it’s better any way you look at it. And that kinda blew the researchers’ minds, it blew my mind when I saw that. Not what we were expecting.

And so, in order to better understand this odd correlation between stress and well being the researchers looked at what other experiences seemed to correlate with a high stress index. And they found, as you might expect, that on the day that people found very stressful, they were also more likely to feel sadness, to feel worried, or to feel angry. That’s how we usually feel about stress. But a high stress index was also correlated with some interesting things, like feeling a great deal of joy yesterday.

Laughing a lot yesterday, saying that you felt a lot of love yesterday, or saying that you learned something interesting yesterday. And what the researchers realized is that the same circumstances that give rise to stress, also give rise to these positive experiences and that’s what I call the stress paradox. That even though we experience stress in the moment as distressing and we often think of it as being undesirable in our lives, we might wish for a less stressful life.

But actually, stress can be a barometer for how engaged you are with the things in your life, that bring love, that bring laughter, that bring learning and that bring growth. That stress actually seems to go along with the things that we most desire, the love, the happiness, the success, the wealth, the satisfaction, and the meaning in our lives.


See also: McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. New York: Avery. (author, library