Stress is a normal response to life events: it’s there to protect us. But it becomes a problem when the body’s fight-or-flight response spills over from an in-the-moment reaction to a constant, chronic presence. Feelings like this are often the result of circumstance, such as dealing with financial issues, a divorce or the death of a loved one. Stress can build up slowly over time, too, when lots of smaller things happen that we don’t acknowledge in the moment.
In a way, this kind of strain is more dangerous because it’s so easy to dismiss. We tell ourselves to get it together – this is life. We often live in a results-driven world, glued to our phones and under constant pressure to perform and prove ourselves. Many of us simply fall into this lifestyle right out of college, never questioning it. In order to escape this cycle of stress, we have to break free from a culture that fetishises work.
Your job doesn’t have to be your status symbol
Firstly, we need to look at what ambition means to you. It’s often framed in society as relating to careers, where hard graft means success and being in demand. It’s early starts, an endless to-do list and flat whites on the go. Yet, perhaps we’re thinking about it all wrong. We can feel too busy between tasks, but it’s worth pausing, taking stock and considering what our personal values are. Where we would like to focus our attention and ambition. Values such as time, relationships and experiences have scope for our ambitious focus when we broaden the lens, and these can change as often as it feels good to us, too.
Your job doesn’t have to be your status symbol: you don’t even need a status symbol. Because, as we know, what creates meaning in life are things like connection, community and freedom to do the things we want. These qualities might happen as a part of your career but they’re also bigger than it. And, if you’re working yourself into a frenzy, it’s likely that you’ll have kicked them to the side. If you want a stress-free life, you need to start redefining your ambitions and examine what you really want your priorities to be.
He has chosen to purposely side-step the career ladder
Part of the reason we’re working more hours than ever before (with record levels of burnout) is that we get emotionally invested in our jobs. They consume us, often without us even realising. It’s a habit that writer David Roberts actively works against. In one of his articles, David explains how he has chosen to live “the medium chill” by consciously taking his foot off the career accelerator.
Unlike most of us, he avoids promotions and instead does a good enough job at work. By rattling along instead of relentlessly striving, he has less money and job kudos but gets to spend more time with his loved ones. He has chosen to purposely side-step the career ladder, recognising that in doing so, he has more freedom for relaxing and doing the things that he wants.
What trade-offs can you make for life to be less stressful?
“There will always be a ‘more’ and ‘better’ just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb,” writes David. “We [David and his partner] could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we have already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our home. Like any life, ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life – we’ve already got it and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.”
Much like David, it’s worth sitting down and questioning: what trade-offs can you make for life to be less stressful? Consider what isn’t serving you and where your time and attention could be placed instead.
Social proof is a deeply ingrained quality
The attitude of ‘good enough’ is often an alien one as it goes against everything we’re conditioned to believe. Since time began, we have been driven by what David calls “social proof”. “Status and wealth are comparative; we judge ourselves not by how we’re doing but how we’re doing compared to the Joneses,” he says. “If our peers are buying big houses and second cars, our strong instinct is to want to signal our status by doing the same.”
Social proof is a deeply ingrained quality; a core value that modern society thrives on. To feel less stressed, start by resisting the comparisons with those around you. That way, you get rid of the narrative that tells you somehow you aren’t good enough or that you need to work harder.
You don’t necessarily need more or better
As novelist Matt Haig expresses in his best-selling book, Reasons to Stay Alive, “Happiness isn’t very good for the economy”.
“If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?” he writes. “How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. […] To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy human selves would not be good for business.”
Look around you – you don’t necessarily need more or better. What you have may be quite enough.
Invest more time in chilling and doing the things that you love
You could spend your life frantically plugging away at a career, feeling forever harried by the search of an elusive ‘I’ve arrived’ goal. Or you could stop working so hard. Stop stressing and striving. Accept the good enough.
Do your job and do it well, but resist the temptation to outperform or get sucked in by a relentless cycle of proving and achieving. Instead, invest more time in chilling and doing the things that you enjoy — like booking a stress-free trip somewhere — with people that you love.
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