Can we move from stress to slow living?

Alex Matthews: I was reading an article the other day about the crisis in dentistry here in the UK (but that’s part of a wider issue for another blog post!). What struck me was someone saying that being a dentist is meant to be one of the most stressful jobs out there. I was quite surprised – I don’t know much about dentistry as a profession but it doesn’t strike me as high octane or particularly stressful. It made me think about how we measure stress as it must be very subjective.

Mel Young: I am sure dentists do get stressed but I get fed up with the current obsession with stress being solely related to the professional classes or what is termed executive stress. Try being homeless. That is real stress. Or living in poverty and trying to survive and feed your children – again that’s real stress. I don’t doubt that professional people become stressed, but I think we should put this in context and understand that stress can affect all of us at different times.

AM: Yes that’s a very good point. I can’t imagine the constant grinding stress of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether you’ll even have a roof over your head tonight. And obviously that is only going to get worse over the coming months, given the rising cost of energy and of living in general. And chronic stress is known to have a negative impact on physical health, so it’s doubly bad. 

The modern world and all its problems seem to cause much more stress than the world of 50 or even 30 years ago. I’m lucky enough to not have to worry about where I’m going to live or how I’m going to afford to eat, but my grandmother is always remarking on how stressed and frantic we all are these days, compared to when she was young. And today’s world is very fast-paced, with lots to worry about – from serious issues such as the food and housing issues you mentioned above, to health, money, the climate etc. It’s something that needs to be addressed in a new ism – how do we do that?

MY: I am not sure but it is the right question to ask. The concept of stress is a relatively new one compared with say 50 years ago. So, it is difficult to compare stress levels with your grandmother’s time, for example. She may not have deduced she was stressed but everyone’s stress levels must have been very high during the world war and with the rationing afterwards, so maybe she was more stressed but just didn’t use the term. She does, however, have a point about the pace of life we live now. Everything is done at a breakneck speed and I wonder if one answer for the New Ism is that we start to slow down, and slow down deliberately. In the olden days, people used to sit down and have a meal together every day and that isn’t so common now as we gorge on takeaways and eat television meals and so on. Maybe we need to look at our lifestyles and slow down and that will reduce our stress levels.

AM: Yes slowing down is key I think. We’re living in this hyper-capitalist world where we’re taught that we should do more, have more, be more, and as a result we all rush around trying to achieve all of that. It’s not a new idea, but we all need to try and be more content with what we have, and not always be hankering after the next thing. That will also benefit the environment, as our obsession with ‘stuff’ is contributing to climate breakdown in so many ways – as we’ve mentioned before, we have a finite planet which can’t produce an infinite amount to satisfy our desires.

During the pandemic, when many of us spent many months in lockdown, there was a feeling that people were starting to appreciate the ‘little’ things – which probably aren’t so little, but which improved our mental health and helped us to feel less stressed. Things like spending time with family, doing hobbies, noticing nature. It’s a shame that we haven’t brought that appreciation into the post-pandemic world with us. The cost of living crisis is going to be hard, but I wonder if that will remind us of those things we learned during the pandemic?

MY: We don’t seem to have basically changed any system after the pandemic – it’s like we have paused for a couple of years and then continued on as we were. Okay, the world’s economy is more turbulent and there is a more nationalistic feel around but basically the system hasn’t changed and neither have our attitudes. If we are serious about slowing down, then we all have to understand the collective benefits and that really needs to be pushed out. We have to remember that earlier we said that real stress was predominant amongst those living in poverty – so one way of tackling stress right away would be to end poverty. That would be a good start and possibly slowing down could be a key ingredient to making a fairer and more inclusive world. 

AM: You’re absolutely right – ending poverty has to be the main focus. If we all slowed down and stopped obsessing over having and doing and achieving everything, then perhaps we would have more energy to give our attention to important issues like that.

MY: Yep, but how do we do this? At the moment, slowness is seen as a failure and we don’t want to be seen as failures. But by taking our time on things we can actually achieve much better qualitative results, so maybe it’s a question of putting ‘“’slowness’”’ at the top of any New Ism agenda and clearly spelling out why we want to live in this way.  

AM: I really like that idea. Living slowly could be one of our core values, encompassing thoughtfulness, reflection, appreciating what matters and putting thought into how we address the big issues like poverty. 

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