The Desire to Appear Stressed

It is undeniable that we live in a time of considerable economic inequality. As I write this, one of the headlines on the homepage of The Guardian reads: “UK cost of living crisis: More than one in eight UK households fear they have no way of making more cuts”. This necessarily means that some are able to live a very comfortable life just as others struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table.

You might be thinking I am about to embark on a criticism of the lucky few — far from it 1. Those who are able to live comfortably, are, for the most part, simply living the life everyone should be able to live. However, imagine you happen to be a very successful software developer, or perhaps an executive, who never has to worry about the bills, and most likely never will. It is difficult not to come into contact with the poverty of others — perhaps a family member is struggling to keep their head above water, or your neighbour is worried about being able to pay the rent, or perhaps you simply read about the magnitude of poverty in your country in the news.

If you live comfortably, it’s very common to feel some kind of guilt, or at the very least to wonder if this situation is justified. You might come up with some set of reasons justifying why you deserve your success, but these are always nebulous — there is always an element of luck, a bit of support from relatives, or some other such factor. There is, however, a pretty surefire way to ensure nobody will question your merit: to appear stressed, or indeed, even better, to organise your life such that you actually are stressed. Surely this will make it clear to everyone that success has not fallen into your lap.

The more you think about it, the more you realise it is almost perverse not to do so. Would it not be almost obscene to have an incredibly relaxed lifestyle, without a worry in the world, fully enjoying the fruits of your own success, always on vacation, working remotely from the beach, while relatives and friends struggle? Would this not be almost insulting to them?

At the same time, your desire to telegraph the correct signals to others is leading to you actually having a stressful life, not only because you are constantly worried that you actually do not deserve your success and are hence committing some awful injustice, but also because the desire to appear stressed and hard-working causes you to ultimately take all of the happiness and peace of mind that your success could have brought you and put it in the bin. Is it not sad to be one of the lucky few and never enjoy the fruits of your luck, never lead a relaxed and happy life, simply because of the desire to appear deserving?

This is quite a sad state of affairs, and I believe that this kind of mentality is the source of widespread unhappiness and mental health issues among the well-paid. It leads to a kind of bizarre situation where, if you’re not financially struggling, you’re quite likely to be mentally struggling. So what’s the solution?

The very idea that one is “deserving” of their success and that they built their entire life up with their own two hands is nonsensical. This is okay. There are many obvious ways to receive a little help along the way: perhaps your parents paid for your education, or you got some financial help from a friend. It also helps to live in a society where you’re unlikely to be discriminated against based on your race, gender, sexuality or other factors. But there are many other ways in which you are likely to receive support from those around you. I’m a software developer — I never chose to like software, it’s just what I’ve loved doing since I was a kid. I’m very fortunate that my field is very highly prized by the market, i.e. it pays well. However, this can always change with the times, and if my passion had been tailoring and I had worked just as hard, I would be out of luck. 2

Those with neoliberal tendencies might argue: of course my skills are prized by the market, software development is essential to society! This is, unfortunately, only true in the world of imagination, and there is no better example than that of “essential workers” during the early days of the COVID pandemic, when we endlessly praised doctors, nurses, supermarket workers and others, while paying them peanuts. Is their contribution to society less than mine? 3

It doesn’t stop here, though. Even if you were successful despite market conditions, you are still standing on the shoulders of others. You eat food brought to you from all corners of the world, you rely on transportation networks, on healthcare staff, on sanitation workers and countless others.

You might be familiar with the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well, it takes a village to raise a CEO as well.

If you take all of this into consideration, it becomes obvious how unrealistic it is to live in a fantasy world of individualism, of being solely responsible for our own success, when in reality, there is some kind of collective effort everywhere you look, which should be celebrated.

If the conclusion is that we all rely on the people and society surrounding us, that it’s nonsensical to say that only you are responsible for your own success, how are the successful supposed to frame themselves in relation to the less fortunate?

It should be clear by now that being stressed and unhappy in the name of others is absolutely foolish and only serves to make oneself miserable while not helping others in any way. It is damaging not only on the individual level, but also on the economic and societal level, to have a class of well-paid but depressed people. Stress is not a badge of honour — if anything, peaceful happiness should be.

The quest for merit, and for “deserving” one’s success should be abandoned. Even though systemic change is necessary to address systemic inequality, we would already do a great service to mental health worldwide if the fortunate dropped the pretence of unnecessary stress and self-flagellation, and instead put their commendable concern for others to good use and rang the doorbell of a struggling neighbour with an offer to lend a hand.

  1. There is a separate obvious argument to be made about how the concentration of wealth enables poverty, but my point is that it is not intrinsically reprehensible to be able to live comfortably. ↩︎

  2. For more on this topic, I can recommend “The Tyranny of Merit” by Michael J. Sandel. ↩︎

  3. No :-) ↩︎