I talked about some of the benefits of intentional stress inducement in the last post on economic growth. After additional thought, I realized there is more to say about the utilization of stress in keeping various systems healthy. In fact, many systems have potential one-time, large downsides, that once identified, can be prevented through small, consistent stressors via acts of commission or omission.
I relate a lot of what I know about the manipulation of stress to the body. It's no secret that I have a pretty large obsession with strength training. I generally read at least one book a month on the topic and sometimes quite a bit more (see my recent reads on the Home page).
I think it's important to understand my motivation though. Since I love reading, learning, talking about, and watching acts of strength, most people assume it's because I just want to be big and strong.
This is false! I truly don't care how big I am or am not. What I care about is health.
Since I was a child, I've watched several of my family members succumb to health issues that they often had no control over due to genetic diseases. Others deteriorated because of their own poor choices and health behaviors. Watching all of them slowly lose their capability to perform various tasks over the years produced a strong desire in me to not lose my capabilities (a.k.a. freedom) easily retained through preventive measures.
Mark Twain has a quote on reading that is just as apt when it comes to a healthy body. “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” When I think of all the unhealthy people with no choice, such as my family members with genetic diseases, and all of the unhealthy people with a choice, such as a person riding around Walmart on a scooter because they have 40% body fat, I am reminded of Mark Twain's quote. These people have voluntarily given up many of life's opportunities and capabilities out of an avoidance of small stresses in the form of exercise, diet, fasting, and other small discomforts.
The man who does not run has no advantage over the man who cannot run.
This avoidance of small, consistent stressors in the form of exercise and diet leads to a lack of health and a much larger, single stress in the form of early death and capability loss.
So while strength training allows me to set goals and chase achievements, it is simply the carrot I use with myself to keep me moving in the right direction and toward a life of health and physical capability.
When it comes to the body, we know very clearly what problems cause preventable death.
Most of these simply involve abstinence from a particular behavior (smoking, drinking, driving, etc.), which is itself a form of small stress for many people. However, exercise is one form of physical stress that requires action.
The large stress we hope to avoid with the body is death. Relative to the small decreases in performance from exercise, which bounce back to higher levels of performance after recovery, death is one decrease in performance that does not bounce back. Death is not recoverable. It's all downside.
In the economy, the downside we're hoping to avoid is a recession. Recessions are large decreases in performance that often take a long time to recover from. It is equivalent to a serious illness that requires hospitalization, if we were to continue with the body analogy. Sure, most recessions don't kill the country, but they can certainly be the cause of "losing a foot" or a massive "loss in body weight" as the country's GDP drops.
How do we do our best to prevent these large illnesses and trips to the hospital that set us back for months or years.
We fucking exercise. We intentionally induce stress to the system to flush out weak points and help build immunity. This was my essential point in the last post, linked to at the beginning of this article.
By constantly stressing systems on a small scale consistently, we can usually prevent one-time, large stresses from ever occurring, which for the purpose of discussing the economy is recessions. I am arguing that recessions would be better prevented through intentional acts of stressing various markets. This would cause small, temporary decreases in these markets, but the stress would keep the markets healthy and pave the way for future growth.
Looking at personal finance, we have to consider what the large downside we hope to prevent is. What one-time, large shock to our personal finances would we want to avoid?
Loss of monthly income is typically the biggest shock that could damage most individuals and families.
If you suddenly lost your monthly income, would you be able to survive next month? How much stress would this cause?
What small, consistent stressors could we apply to our monthly finances in order to help prevent this larger stress from occurring?
By saving a small percentage of monthly income now, we suffer the small annoyance of not being able to use those funds in the present. This represents an act of abstinence similar to fasting or dieting as mentioned above in the section on the body. By engaging in this form of financial dieting, a loss of monthly income, while bad, will not represent a huge stress. You will have an emergency fund and the needed space and breathing room to find a new source of monthly income.
Individual Job Security
So what is the big stress we hope to avoid with our jobs? Being fired or laid off.
How do we institute small, consistent stressors with the hope of preventing this larger stress?
There is a variety of ways. Taking on extra work (that you do well), providing more working hours, accepting promotions or taking on other time commitments. All of these things add sources of stress to your life on a small scale by requiring you to do more, either through the intensity of work you perform or through the volume of work you do in terms of time.
However, they also develop you as an employee and a source of human capital. They add value to you and the company. As you grow in value for the company, your likelihood of being let go drops. Any small task that creates more work for you, but value for the company will be a small stressor today, that prevents the larger, drastic stressor of tomorrow when your manager has to decide who will be let go while the office downsizes.
Outside of corporate employment, there is also the possibility of self-employment. This is pretty much one long, continuous stream of small stressors. However, self-employment, once off the ground and reasonably successful, is perhaps the greatest form of job security. No one can fire you, unless all of your clients/customers suddenly decide your service/product is no longer valuable.
Of course, there are few breaks and few chances to slack off. You are entirely accountable to yourself and only yourself will give you orders and tasks to do. This is much more creatively demanding that having the tasks handed down to you from above. However, all of the stress that goes with being self-employed can be weighed against the often large financial and psychological stress of being laid off when you have mouths to feed, rent to pay, and student loan debt to help your kids get through college.
Self-employment is not an act of abstinence like dieting or saving above, but an active form of development like exercise. You have to constantly generate the motivation to get up and move forward. These acts of commission are often more difficult than acts of omission, so it is understandable why self-employment is much rarer than simply saving each month from the paycheck earned in corporate employment.
This will be the last example. However, these few categories of the body, economy, personal finance, job security, and now marriage are not the only ones. These ideas can be applied to any system that involves a potentially large downside. Once you are able to identify the large risk factor, think hard about what small acts you can take to prevent it, which may be stressful in their own right, but on a small and tolerable scale.
On to marriage. Marriage ends in divorce roughly 50 percent of the time in America. That's a big percentage. Divorce is also a large downside. Emotions, finances, relationships, and people's well-being all suffer as a result.
How do we prevent this big shock to our system?
I really hope you've guessed it by now. We perform small, consistent stress tests on it. These take the form of anything that is uncomfortable for the marriage. Difficult conversations. Difficult behaviors to commit.
One oft cited cause of divorce is infidelity. I firmly believe that if couples had more difficult conversations about this topic, it would be much less of an issue. What is it about infidelity that causes stress? What makes it unacceptable? Usually, it is accepted as cause for outrage because of Christian values and not some fear of sexually transmitted diseases. If it is a fear of being left for another, what causes this fear? Insecurity? Should we be married to spouses that are insecure in our feelings toward them to begin with? Should marriage be about feelings to begin with or financial and familial stability for raising children?
I am not at all saying that infidelity is always acceptable, but the blatant refusal to talk about it is the avoidance of a stress that potentially leads to a much larger one. It's the matrimonial equivalent of the person riding around Walmart at 40% body fat because they refuse to suffer discomfort in the form of dieting or exercise. Experience the discomfort of difficult conversations and behaviors in marriage. They won't kill you. In fact, they will do the opposite as everything in this post has pointed to.
Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in literature for his book Marriage and Morals. It discusses several very difficult topics and conversations that would be beneficial for any couple to have. I highly recommend it as a starting point for looking at conversation topics that can act as stress testers for marriage and personal morality.