The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 30, 2004


Is the rat race slowing down?

"How were your holidays?"

"Over at last, thank goodness!"

That question produced that answer surprisingly often this year. Holidays are about joy and celebration, so the answer, my friends in the Mosquito office agreed one day in early January, seems jarring. A lively conversation ensued about stress: holiday and otherwise. Nancy Shohet West's article in the December 19 Mosquito suggested that doing our best in the celebrations but not expecting perfection is about the only way to enjoy them. Nevertheless, the constant parade of entertainments, family gatherings, religious services, and holiday events crams a year's worth of social activity into one poor, overloaded month. It's all too easy to become exhausted and cranky, at any age. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Work hard, play hard: healthy? That depends

It's a long tradition. Our ancestors would light extra fires and throw a huge neighborhood feast at the winter solstice. One party was probably all they could manage, given their daily struggle to survive the cold, darkness, and privations of winter. Our comparatively luxurious habitats lend themselves to partying more. And more.

Our ancestors, however, were actually better equipped to deal with the stress of physical survival than we are with our stress. Like them, we are genetically wired for physical stress: the type of muscle stress we might feel after, say, successfully evading a wild animal, or fighting an enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Adrenalin kicks in with the "fight or flight" response. The stress we suffer today, however, is the result of adrenalin kicking in where there is no physically life-threatening situation; the threat is more conceptual, and the resulting reaction has been implicated in physical ailments, such as impaired immune system resistance to viral diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS, and effects on hormone, neurotransmitter and enzyme systems. Some studies even suggest that stress actually creates new maladies. In addition, stress has proven linkages to a myriad of psychological ills as well.

Our kind of stress is more pervasive and dangerous than anything experienced before. According to the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, 75-90% of all visits to primary care physicians today involve the diagnosis and treatment of stress. Many physicians call stress, specifically job stress, the number one health problem in America today.

At the very least, many of us feel as if we are running just behind where we need to be, and few of us, even in quiet, sylvan Carlisle, feel that we are in complete control of serene and happy lives. At most, we can become dysfunctional or endanger our lives.

America fifty years ago

Half a century ago in America, life was much calmer than it is today. In the Wall Street Journal of January 7, 2004, reporter Cynthia Crossen reviewed some of the salient features of American life in 1954:

"C.A. Swanson and Sons of Omaha introduced a frozen 'TV dinner' — turkey, sweet potatoes, and peas — for 89 cents." Credit cards were a brand-new device, and studies speculated on their potential effect on American spending. The Civil Rights Act was a decade away, and "the business world was innocent of both affirmative action and political correctness." The economy was "dominated by manufacturing jobs, and labor-union membership had reached its all-time high, about 35% of the U.S. work force. A desirable middle-class home was 800 square feet, had knotty-pine paneling and cost $7,000. Most cars had standard transmissions; only 'deluxe' models had power steering." Most every home had one telephone, but televisions were rarer, and those lucky enough to own them watched their three channels in gloriously fuzzy black and white.

Studies of tobacco's relationship to cancer were "inconclusive." No one had traveled in outer space; even Sputnik was three years away. Computers were room-sized main-frame contraptions; transistor radios were not yet on the market, Elvis Presley had yet to become the King of Rock, and if you wanted to see a movie, you could get in for about a dollar and you could smoke in the theater. AIDS was unknown, and "heart disease" was the number one health problem, not stress.

The rat race and the price of progress

Our lifestyle has changed vastly in a short fifty years. Addicted to speed and efficiency, we are fascinated by our new technologies. Great strides in science, art, business, and other spheres have improved our lifespan, our quality of life, and made many daily tasks easier to accomplish in less time.

However, progress appears to have a serious price tag. Our "labor-saving devices" haven't really saved us work; they have simply made it possible for us to accomplish more work in the same 24-hour day and given us more ways to spend time. Improved communications systems have not only brought us the world at the touch of a button, but they have made us available to the world in the same way, at any time of day or night. Most of us appreciate this ease of communication, but the virtual extension of our offices to our vacation spots has invaded our leisure time. In another way, increased time spent with electronic communications and other devices has made us feel isolated from each other and has cut down on what we call "face time."

Business is accelerated, demanding effectiveness in less time. My husband, C.E.O. of a family business in Lowell, noted that while his grandfather had a week, sometimes two, to mull over a decision and communicate it (in triplicate carbon copies) when he ran the company, similar decisions are now more complicated and must be made in hours, sometimes even in minutes. Flextime allows us to work as our schedules permit or when we are most productive. However, the demise of the nine-to-five workday and the 40-hour workweek in favor of irregular working hours and working lunches pressures us to be in top form for longer periods without necessary recreation and meal time. Americans top the number of weekly hours worked in the developed world, followed by Germany and the U.K.: we are the rat-race champions.

Are we running the rat race or is the rat race running us?

In the last 50 years, the addition of legions of women, the rapidly developing technological environment, and a global economy larger than ever before have changed the concept of work almost beyond recognition. U.S. News and World Report stated in February of last year that "Today, work dominates Americans' lives as never before, as workers pile on hours at a rate not seen since the Industrial Revolution 'People are very emotional about work, and they're very negative about it,' says David Rhodes, a principal at human resource consultants Towers Perrin. 'The biggest issue is clearly workload. People are feeling crushed.' "

Balancing our lives for greater effectiveness

How are we managing the gains and losses of modern life (not to mention added work and planning during the holiday season)? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last couple of years, Americans have dropped their number of working hours by about half a percent. In December, one of our closest competitors for man-hours, Britain, reported that in 2003, more than 25% of men and women aged 30-59 "down-shifted" to lower-paying or less stressful jobs, so as to have more leisure and family time. Could this be the beginning of a trend?

On January 7, the New York Times reported that increasing numbers of young doctors and medical students are opting for specialties with a "controllable lifestyle," choosing fields like radiology, dermatology, orthopedics, and anesthesiology — careers with more regular hours, few or no emergency calls, and still good paychecks. Fewer are choosing surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics, and other specialties with irregular or overly long working schedules. The American Medical Association asserts: "lifestyle considerations accounted for 55% of a doctor's choice of specialty in 2002." Young doctors want hard work, but they do not want to lose effectiveness to stress, and they want to participate in raising families. Doctors today want to balance job, family, and leisure.

The "balance" concept is beginning to spill over into the business world as well. J. Walter Thompson, New York's largest advertising firm, believes that its employees are healthier and more productive if they balance work, leisure, and other pursuits. It grants even its entry-level employees ten days' vacation, three personal days, and 18 paid holidays. In addition, there is an in-office recreation area, complete with a pool table and available snacks. JWT provides employees with discount memberships to nearby gymnasiums, and schedules regular outreach days in which employees choose from several volunteer opportunities in the city: reading to second graders in a public school, serving food in soup kitchens, working on cleanup and setup crews, and other municipal projects.

Each generation seems to be faced with more choices for time use than its predecessor. With the stress inherent in our times, we are lucky to live in Carlisle, which, one resident insists, "lowers your blood pressure ten points every time you enter it." How productive might we be if we balance work, family, and leisure? We might lead healthier everyday and holiday lives. The alternative may be unhealthy, even dangerous. And what's appealing about rats running races?

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito