Unhappiness is much in the news. We repeatedly hear that the average level of life satisfaction and psychological well-being in the United States has, in recent decades, fallen steeply and that rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, suicide and other deaths of despair have risen sharply.
The increase in unhappiness has, in turn, been attributed to everything from social media, video gaming, texting and increased consumption of video media to an increase in social isolation and a decline in social support and social connections, as well as family instability, the retreat from marriage, de-churching, the dissolution of intact ethnic communities and the collapse of participation in various kinds of civic organizations: places of worship, parent-teacher associations and, yes, bowling leagues.
It sounds a bit like a mash-up of Durkheimian anomie and Kierkegaardian despair combined with Ferdinand Tönnies’s ideas about the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.
Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that the share of adult Americans who consider themselves unhappy has fallen very modestly. Whereas about 15 percent of Americans during the 1970s told pollsters that they were “not very happy,” the figure today is about 18 percent. That shift is statistically significant, but not all that pronounced.
Read a headline like “American Happiness Hits Record Lows” and you’d never guess that the U.S. currently ranks 15th on the list of happiest countries, ahead of Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain and the U.K.
And yet, there are grounds for concern.
Although the United States has the second-lowest rate for cancer deaths among postindustrial societies, trailing only Japan, it has much higher mortality rates from auto accidents, alcohol and drug abuse, obesity, smoking, suicide, and gun-related violence.
That largely explains why life expectancy in the United States trails other affluent societies. Our elderly lead very long lives. It’s deaths among youth, young adults and the middle-aged that explain the difference.
Noah Smith, the noted economist and blogger, attributes this example of American distinctiveness to the flawed or maladaptive ways that this nation’s population copes with stress. Among these ways: alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating and bulimic behavior, risky and reckless behavior, and smoking.
These behaviors, in turn, reflect this society’s very high levels of stress. According to a 2022 Harris poll conducted for the American Psychological Association, “more than a quarter (27 percent) say that most days they are so stressed they can’t function. Nearly half (46 percent) of those under 35 and more than half (56 percent) of Black adults under 35 agreed with this statement.”
Some 62 percent of women 18 to 34 and 48 percent aged 35 to 44 said that most days they felt completely overwhelmed by stress. The figures for men were 51 percent and 48 percent, respectively.
Even before the pandemic, Americans reported levels of stress far higher than the global average, which can be attributed, in part, to work-related stress (including fellow employees not pulling their weight, excessively high expectations and unrealistic deadlines), relationship-related stress, school-related stress, and stress involving debt and health insurance.
This country has a particularly demanding work culture. Americans tend to work longer hours, have fewer vacation days and often don’t utilize all their vacation time when compared to workers in some other developed countries. Our health-care system, with persistent issues involving access and affordability, is also a source of stress. Of course, the rising cost of college and the burden of student loans is a significant stressor for many young Americans. Then there are this nation’s fraught social dynamics, with its high levels of racial tension, gun violence, political polarization and income inequality. In addition, the cultural emphasis on individualism and self-reliance often leads Americans to blame themselves whenever they experience failure or frustration, which can exacerbate feelings of stress.
To this list, we might add other contributors to stress. There’s this society’s emphasis on achievement and material success and the disparities in income, status and wealth that can contribute to a sense of inadequacy and failure. Then there’s the decline in face-to-face social interactions and close, intimate friendships, despite the fact that Americans are more virtually connected than ever before. There’s also the dissolution of community support systems, above all, the drift away from organized religion, with only about 30 percent of those with a college degree and an income over $60,000 regularly attending religious services and just 20 percent for those with a high school degree earning less than $30,000 a year.
To this list, we might also mention the sense, among many, of being marginalized or stigmatized outsiders and a constant barrage of negative news combined with curated perfection and happiness on social media.
Stress can be chronic or episodic or a product of an acutely stressful one-time event or trauma. Stress can also be externally or internally induced. It can be the product of relationship or financial problems, a major life transition, work or family pressures or daily hassles or of mind-set, perceptions or expectations. Some forms of stress, known as eustress (as opposed to distress), can be a positive motivating force, helping one to focus and work harder.
Stress responses have biological, physiological, genetic, psychological and social dimensions and, therefore, individual responses to stress affected by a person’s system of social support, sense of self-efficacy and control and cognitive appraisal of a stressful situation.
It’s not surprising, then, that a new language regarding stress has arisen. We hear concepts like these:
- Allostatic load: The impact of chronic, ongoing stress on mental and physical health.
- Diathesis: The biological, genetic and psychological vulnerabilities that influence the way individuals respond to stressors.
- Weathering: A decline in health and mental well-being due to chronic exposure to stress, marginalization, discrimination and social and economic disadvantage.
It’s during the college years that many young people adopt maladaptive coping strategies that are detrimental to their long-term well-being. Binge drinking. Drug use as a way to numb feelings or induce an artificial high. Over- or undereating. Impulsive and risk-taking activities including dangerous driving, unsafe sex and gambling. Social isolation. Ruminating on negative events and feelings. Avoidance, denial and projection. Engaging in “retail therapy,” through shopping and spending excessive amounts of money.
What can we, as college faculty, administrators or staff do to help our students better manage toxic levels of stress and become more resilient? Apart from expanding access to counseling services and offering workshops on stress management, there are other steps to take:
- Be on the lookout for signs of stress.
- Encourage open conversations about the personal challenges and academic pressures that young students are experiencing and persuade students to talk about their stress-related feelings and concerns.
- Make sure that your course workload is manageable.
- Reduce students’ uncertainty by clearly communicating your expectations about assignments, participation and behavior.
- Provide constructive feedback that acknowledges students’ efforts and offers guidance for improvement, rather than simply highlighting mistakes or weaknesses.
- Integrate mindfulness activities into your classes; these have been shown to reduce stress and enhance psychological well-being.
- Ensure that students feel a sense of belonging and make sure that their concerns are heard and that their academic work is well supported.
- Give students opportunities to provide feedback on their college and classroom experience and make necessary adjustments in response to their concerns.
- Help students maintain a healthy balance between academics, extracurricular activities, work and personal time.
- Create opportunities for students to relax, destress and disconnect from academic pressures.
- Integrate physical activities, including exercise classes and recreational sports, into the college experience as stress reducers.
- Tell your students that you’re available to talk if they have concerns or questions and periodically check in on your students’ well-being.
Above all, take time to talk about toxic stress and dysfunctional responses. Create a comfortable environment where students feel safe. Assure your students that their experiences with stress are valid and common. Be nonjudgmental. Address peer dynamics and the ways that peer pressure can exacerbate stress or encourage maladaptive responses. Discuss various coping mechanisms that people use to handle stress and the differences between adaptive and maladaptive responses. Discuss healthy coping strategies.
One of my concerns is that while colleges try to accommodate various student challenges, they fail to provide the strategies, support, resources and guidance that students will need to better handle those challenges in the future. You may not be a therapist or a licensed counselor, but you do have a responsibility to be a mentor and a source of guidance and support.
Some of us were fortunate to have had advisers who genuinely cared about us as a person. Many, however, did not. So, be the mentor that you wanted for yourself. Be the mentor that your students deserve.