Good Thinking

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Why Americans Are Overworked and Under-Pleasured

An out-of-whack work-life balance can wreak devastating health consequences

In Part 1, we saw how a stressed person can put on more fat than an unstressed person even while eating the same number of calories. We saw how stress fat is far more toxic than normal fat, settling in the abdominal region where it negatively impacts our major organs. We also saw how Americans are more stressed and more unhappy than our counterparts in other countries and how we are fatter and sicker despite eating about the same number of calories as people in other first world countries. 

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Here, I address the following question: Why are we so stressed?

 The short answer, in my opinion, is the impossibility of achieving “work-life balance” in 21st century America.

We're Running As Fast As We Can

According to the 2013 OECD Better Life Index, the United States—one of the richest countries in the world--ranks 28th among advanced nations in the category of "work-life balance," 9th from the bottom.

The daily stress of American life is not your garden variety stress--deadlines and annoying in-laws. It is something more fundamental. It is how we live today. We log long hours at work with the fear of losing our jobs through downsizing hanging over our heads. Then we fight rush hour traffic to get home in time to be super-parents, putting dinner on the table, helping our kids with their homework, and checking in with friends and family members we feel we have neglected because we are so overwhelmed. Some days, we’re so tired we just want to sit in a corner and cry. And so we get fatter. And sicker.

To drive this point home, look at this graphic which illustrates U.S. obesity rates in 1990, 2000, and 2010. During the 1990’s the economy was booming, and most people were doing OK. Then we suffered two major economic downturns, first in 2000 when the stock market crashed, and again in 2008 with the financial sector crisis that ushered in a global recession. Tomes have been written about the disappearing middle class. We are running as fast as we can, not to get ahead but just not to fall behind.

How We Lived Yesterday Compared to Today

This is how William Falk, Editor in Chief of The Week (July 6, 2012), describes the typical middle class lifestyle he enjoyed while growing up.

I think back to seeing my successful dad walking home from work nearly every day at 5:30 pm. My stay-at-home mom had dinner in the oven; my brother and I ate with our parents, and we all spent a leisurely evening together. How 20th century.

But this division of labor meant that women were denied the opportunity to pursue careers. We didn’t like that. Not one bit. So, as Boomers did back then, we organized. We rebelled. We pushed and demanded and broke down the barriers standing in the way of women’s advancement in the workplace.

But our rebellion was simultaneously based on thinking that went something like this: If a family can live comfortably on one full-time worker’s income, then a family can live comfortably on two half-time workers’ incomes. So rather than dad being gone from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday with mom stuck at home, mom and dad would each work 20 hours a week, and divide home and childcare equally. Women working meant income and childcare equality, and more home-time for dad.

I will pause here to give you the opportunity to stop laughing.

What in fact happened is that when we were done smashing the barriers that kept women out of the Ivy League and managerial positions, the Gen-Xers came rushing in with a very different idea in their heads, namely, now my partner and I can both devote our lives to climbing the corporate ladder. Market research executives have a name for them: DINKS, or double-income, no kids.

Here is sobering statistic from "The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation," a study from The Center for Work Life Policy in New York: About 43 percent of Gen X women and nearly a third (32%) of Xer men do not have children at all—nor do they intend to.

With all that extra income, these wealthy (primarily white), highly educated Gen-Xers could afford to buy bigger houses, more luxurious cars. So, of course, housing and other prices followed suit. Eventually, we needed two incomes just to maintain the same quality of life that the Boomers and Silent Generation enjoyed from just one. And after the fad of downsizing, globalization of the workplace, and two economic downturns (in 2000 and 2008), we are now all running as fast as we can just to not fall behind.

Enter The Era of the Working Zombies

Here is how we live today, also as perfectly captured by Mr. Falk:

As I write this, my wife, Karla, is on a business trip to Chicago, and I am in the 15th hour of a day that began at 6 am with some work at home, a 9 am trip to the doctor for my daughter's post-appendectomy checkup, more work on my laptop in the waiting room, some text updates to Karla, a work-filled commute, a full day of pedal-to-the-medal cranking on deadline, a commute back home, a rushed dinner with my daughter, and a few more hours on the laptop, pecking out this editor's letter. How's that for work-life balance?

And it is not just working parents who feel the burn. We all do. As Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, said in an appearance on the Today show

We've all bought into this male definition of success, money and power, and it's not working. It's not working for men, and it's not working for women. It's not working for anyone.

Instead, we have found that dual career parents are the most exhausted people in America. Young children are exhausting. Even if you farm them out to the nanny or the daycare center while you are at work, you will still have to deal with them when you come home. Like most parents of young children, you will probably find yourself far too exhausted and strained to deal calmly with a crying, demanding child at the end of a very long workday. Particularly when you are trying to get dinner on the table followed by kitchen cleanup time, bath time, and story time before they (not you, yet) go to bed. Then you will spend several hours reading reports to prepare for the next workday, doing laundry, planning meals, and trying to catch up with family and friends whom you feel you have neglected. After a while either you or your spouse will wonder whether this is any way to live, and whether it is worth paying a good chunk of your joint income to the nanny or the daycare center.

We are not going to get thinner or healthier or happier by simply cutting carbs, cutting calories, or increasing our exercise level. These things may help in the short run, but in the long run, they will surely fail. But we might just have a fighting chance if we radically change the way we live our lives to vastly reduce our stress levels. And an out-of-control work-life balance is the major source of stress in our daily lives.

The Personal Answer—Help Your Body Fight Stress

Arm yourself with a simple meditative technique that has been proven to dramatically change the way people respond to stressors. Called the “relaxation response” (RR), it is the opposite of the physiological and psychological fight-or-flight response. The RR is elicited when an individual focuses on a word, sound, phrase, repetitive prayer, or movement, and disregards everyday thoughts. It is a brief “time-out” from the noise and fear in your head, for as brief or as long a period of time as you want to devote to it daily. Herbert Benson, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, gives a step-by-step explanation of how to learn the RR at this website

A number of studies have found that this learned response has profound impact on numerous health indices. One recent study identified the mechanism by which RR brings about these effects. The researchers assessed changes in gene expression among a group of long-time RR practitioners and a group of novices both before and after 8 weeks of training in the RR technique. The impact of RR on gene expression was profound.

RR practice significantly enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism and insulin secretion, while simultaneously reducing expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways. These changes occur right down there in the cellular level, impacting the efficiency of the mitochondria which are the powerhouses of cellular energy. In essence, RR practitioners acquire a mitochondrial resiliency or mitochondrial reserve capacity that allows them to better withstand life stressors and respond more adaptively to them. 

The Societal Answer—The Personal is Political

See yourself and your struggles in the current full social context. As the numbers plainly show, you are not alone in your struggles to regain your health and to put your life in some kind of sensible perspective. You are a sociological phenomenon, the outcome of huge social changes that have taken place within the last four decades. The struggles you are facing are not a personal failure, but they do indeed hit you where you live—up close and personal in your home and in your very body.

While there is a movement afoot to send women back into the home in order to reduce our stress, this is not likely to make a lasting difference. We’ve been there, done that. Every so often, a counterculture movement arises (such as the current “homeward bound”), and it usually consists of women opting out of the workplace to stay home and knit, bake bread, and live the simple life. It doesn’t last. Women have had a taste of life outside the home, and you simply cannot put that genie back in the bottle. We may step out for a while, but once our kids are older, we go stir crazy in our suburban or not-so-suburban homes. So we try to re-enter the workforce. And find we can’t because that gap in our resumes relegate us to the mommy track.

We need, in my opinion, five radical changes if we are to take back our lives:

1. Change our minds. Let go of the belief that life is a zero-sum, winner-take-all game where people must compete for scarce resources simply to survive, and the measure of a successful life (or successful career) is how long it took to get to the top of the ladder. If I were to sum up the difference in attitudes between Americans and Europeans, I would put it this way: Americans believe life is a struggle for survival, Europeans believe life is an experience to be enjoyed. If, at the end of every day, you look forward to a time when you will no longer have to do the things you spent all day doing, you are not living. You are just surviving (barely). Life doesn’t begin at retirement. It’s there all the while.

Perhaps the importance of this point is best captured by this quote from Anand Giridharadas’ speech at The Third Metric Conference:

 If you select high financiers according to their willingness to work 100 hours a week and ignore their families and outmaneuver their peers…you are going to get a disproportionate number of self-serving less-than-empathetic people managing society’s money.

 Oh, wait…we already did that, and it brought us a global economic meltdown from which we are still recovering.

2. Push for workplace reform. According to the American Institute of Stress

Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.

Rather than resigning ourselves to the current toxicity of the workplace, advocate for change. Advocate for anti-mobbing and anti-abuse workplace legislation. While the globalization of the workplace is touted as a good thing, it usually translates into exporting high paying jobs overseas where living standards are much lower than they are here. Americans are downsized out of jobs, and must resign themselves to working for much lower wages in order to compete in the new global workplace. While we are told that this is needed if American products are to be produced cheaply enough to compete in the global marketplace, it is difficult to believe given that our executive salaries and bonuses have skyrocketed to record levels.

3. Create more career tracks: As Brian Reid of NBC’s Today.com puts it

Law professor Joan Williams has suggested that workers be allowed to work part-time, with an accordingly pro-rated salary — and benefits and advancement. Now, part-time work is financial disaster; should Williams’ plan ever get put into place, parents could each work 25 hours a week, make as much money as — and collect the benefits of — a single worker pumping out 50-hours weeks, all without anyone sacrificing their home life.

In the 1980 movie “Nine to Five”, Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton tout the benefits of flextime. It was an idea that was given short shrift, yet held great potential—particularly given the 21st century option of telecommuting from home. So perhaps the Boomers’ dream of two equal partners working part-time while equally sharing family duties is not such a laughing matter after all.

4. Let go of the belief that family formation is a private matter, not a societal one. A comparison of European and American workplaces shows that American companies trail painfully behind their European counterparts on maternity and paternity leave. This is one of the major reasons they are less stressed than we are.

5. Push for an heretical attitude shift on the part of employers and in our own belief systems concerning work. Employers should not write-off job applicants or current employees who make lateral moves, choose to work part time, or take time off from their career trajectories to make time for family formation or personal growth. Not everyone can afford to do that in the current economic climate, and those who do should not be marked with an “S” for “slaggard”.

A resume that shows a gap or a lateral move out of the fast lane for child rearing is not a defective resume. It is not proof that the person is not serious about his or her career. It is not a foregone conclusion that the person could never possibly catch up to those who stayed in the game during that miniscule portion of a 40+ year career spent getting their children off to a good start. As most parents realize too late, child rearing is not at all like babysitting. Children between the ages of 0 and 4 are far more demanding and draining of parental energy than the childless can possibly imagine. Yet it is also far more satisfying than they can possibly imagine as well. Here is how one professional woman who paused her career described it in a New York Times comment :

Although I later wished, for the sake of my born again career that I hadn’t, and I believe that most mothers are better off working than stuck isolated in a suburb - I have a dirty secret…Motherhood made my stellar career seem trivial. Having worked for 10 years I could map out the next 5 years of career advancement with stultifying predictability. Instead I was given a chance to stay at home with my kids. I was witnessing life itself. Being a stay at home mom was more interesting than my time at Harvard, more interesting than my stellar career. It was all encompassing, passionate, unequivocal and joyous.

Doesn’t that sound more like living?

Calling On Millenials

From where I sit, our hope for a better life rests with the millennials—those twenty-xsomethings of today who are questioning the wisdom of living the life of a stereotypical career-centered male. The Boomers got the ball rolling, and the Gen-Xers threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is your turn now to get it right. And that means first and foremost reforming a relentlessly family-unfriendly workplace. Even wondergirl Sheryl Sandberg takes pride in the fact that she leaves her desk at 5:30 to get home to her personal life and her family. Conferences aimed at identifying a “third metric” are grounded in the hope that there are an infinity of possibilities between leaning in and opting out. The core issue is taking back our personal lives. Taking back our time for friends, families, and life’s simple pleasures.

In Part 3, we'll see how calorie dense, nutritionally, poor and utterly tasteless American food contributes to the obesity crisis.

Copyright Denise Dellarosa Cummins, PhD June 14, 2013

Dr. Cummins is the author of Good Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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