How Much Stress Do You Need for Success?

A lot of anxiety in life is both unwanted and involuntary.

Often when I have an early morning flight, I can’t sleep deeply. The worry about sleeping through my alarm clock has me waking up involuntarily, every hour or so. Even when I should have enough sleep to feel rested, I wake up groggy.

I try to tell myself that the alarm clock will go off, I’ve never slept through it before, so get some high-quality sleep now before you can’t on a big flight. But somehow that line of reasoning rarely changes anything.

Anxiety doesn’t even have to be about a specific problem. I sometimes worry about being wrong in my writing. Advocating something which I later discover is wrong, or actually harmful. Perhaps even being called out by a higher source of expertise for charlatanism because I could have known better had I only done my research correctly.

I can tell myself that what matters isn’t being perfect about picking the right ideas to believe in, but being willing to change them in the face of new evidence. I can also persuade myself having higher sources of expertise disagree with you, or even being wrong about some things are unavoidable, and what matters is doing one’s best.

Sometimes recognizing an emotion’s irrationality isn’t enough to eliminate it. That’s an obvious reality, and if you suffer from unwanted anxiety in your life, there are probably some good methods to handle that.

However, despite the prevalence of involuntary anxiety, I think there’s also a great deal of voluntary stress we inflict upon ourselves. Anxiety that comes, not because we can’t help feeling worried, but because we believe we should feel stress.

When Should You Be Stressed?

An example for you might be school. You get stressed around exam time because you feel the pressure to pass your exams, but worry you might not be able to. This may arise automatically from the environment.

But then that feeling gets compounded because it also includes a belief that says, “I should be stressed prior to my exams. People who don’t feel stress during exams, get lazy, don’t study, fail, drop out of school, can’t find work and end up living on the streets, etc.”

Well maybe it doesn’t go that far. But there may be this implicit assumption that “not feeling stressed” = “undesirable life outcomes you want to avoid”. Therefore it’s not merely that you get stressed prior to your exams, but that any attempt to alleviate that anxiety would also be a bad idea because it would lead to these undesirable life outcomes.

I think it’s that additional belief, which states that the feeling of anxiety and stress is necessary or good which makes a lot of anxiety more intractable. After all, there are probably a lot of ways you can deal with mild involuntary anxiety, provided you don’t also believe that alleviating that pain is something unwise. Even if you do feel serious, uncontrollable anxiety, knowing it isn’t vital to your success as an individual may give you the power to seek out treatment.

Given this, how much anxiety and stress do you actually need?

Anxiety and the Tao

This has been a question on my mind a lot lately. I’ve started watching some of Alan Watts television series on Buddhism and Taoism. I’ve also rekindled my previous interest in those eastern philosophies, which I had read years ago but drifted away from in my recent fixation on a more scientific view of the world.

While I’m still a complete novice in these subjects, there seems to me to be a lot of good ideas related to this very question I’ve posed. Namely, that Buddhism suggests that much of our suffering in life is due to this kind of voluntary anxiety. Taoism, similarly, argues that there is a natural way of things and we should follow along this, rather than try to actively resist it.

Rereading a lot of this writing has made me reflect on this kind of voluntary anxiety and suggest that perhaps most, if not all of it, is unnecessary to live a successful life. I haven’t fully convinced myself of this conclusion yet, but I’d like to share it tentatively with you, if only to spark a discussion which can improve my thinking about it.

Is Stress Useful at All?

The strongest argument I can think of, for the beneficial nature of stress, is that we evolved it for a reason. If negative emotions had no practical significance, they would never have been designed under selection pressure in the first place.

This argument is one I think weights heavily against any idea that some subset of our natural functioning range of emotions and beliefs is either entirely escapable or harmful. Either the experience is an unavoidable side-effect of our proper functioning (say, cognitive biases), or the experience is helpful in some subsets of experience, so eliminating it would be maladaptive (say, negative emotional states).

But such a line of argument only suggests that a certain experience might be beneficial, in part. I don’t think it reasonably follows that the proportions in your life are necessarily correct. After all, we may recognize that anger or disgust have important functions (in preventing being taken advantage of, or engaging in activities that may make us sick), but that you can also feel these emotions too much, or in places where they aren’t useful.

Similarly, I think a lot of stress and anxiety in modern life isn’t strictly necessary. For one, we rarely face the life-or-death consequences that require an immediate fight-or-flight response. Second, because we can intelligently design systems to render stress unnecessary.

When is Stress Useful?

My sense is that stress is useful to prompt a specific action, to a specific threat, or to promote alertness during a brief period of danger. That’s it. Any stress which doesn’t facilitate these purposes is wasted and therefore any beliefs that stress is necessary must be limited to these contexts.

So take your final exam situation I mentioned previously. Here the stress can serve two purposes. First, it can prompt you to take action against a specific threat. In this case, the answer is obvious—studying—to prevent doing poorly on your exams. Once you feel this stress, momentarily, you should take action to create a specific studying plan and implement it. Stress beyond that point is wasted since you cannot do better than that.

Second, it can keep you alert in during a period of danger. But this function isn’t relevant for exams because they are known in advance. They won’t come jumping out of the bushes to maul you to death. So being in a constant state of alertness is wasteful. Indeed, it’s probably actively harmful since chronic stress worsens learning and memory.

Or consider my personal examples of stress. Worrying about my alarm clock is wasted effort. I’ve already taken action by setting my alarm and there is no continued environment of unforeseen danger. Worrying about being wrong is also wasted effort. Once I’ve taken what actions are within my power to prevent being willfully ignorant, there’s nothing more I can do. Having any continued stress won’t reduce even a tiny bit the chances of being wrong.

So this idea—that fear, stress or anxiety should create a specific prompt to action, or promote alertness in a period of danger—means that most stress isn’t helpful. You need just enough to encourage the necessary action and no more. Since periods of persistent danger are much rarer today than in our ancestral environment, persistent stress is most likely a harmful overreaction. Like an allergy reacting aggressively to a harmless substance, you may feel persistent stress to a situation where dangers are actually minimal.

I might even go further and say that, provided you have the decisiveness to take action immediately upon perceiving a problem, virtually any stress is unnecessary. This is one reason I advocate for productivity systems that allow you to capture and process tasks, so even if you can’t deal with something immediately, you can feel confident that it will be dealt with later. Systems like these can take the place of stress.

How Does This Belief Help?

Given that, in the specific cases, stress is usually unhelpful beyond some minimal threshold to take specific actions to specific threats, then it certainly reasons that being stressed as a person is generally unhelpful to being successful in life.

This then corresponds to a more generalized belief that many people hold. Namely, if they didn’t feel stress and anxiety, they’d end up being one of those foolish, incautious people for whom entirely avoidable misery befalls.

Instead, you could replace that belief with a different one. Namely, it’s possible to be successful as an individual with almost no stress. All that’s necessary is simply to take the correct action to the specific threats, and avoid putting yourself in genuinely dangerous situations for long periods of time.

This isn’t idle theorizing, I believe there’s good evidence that this is in fact the case for many successful people. Cal did great work in these two books, explaining the mysterious combination of extremely high achievement and low stress in students. I’ve personally known examples of low-stress, high-achievement individuals. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the existence of low-stress, high-achievement people does put water on the theory that high stress is a prerequisite to accomplishment.

Now obviously having this belief isn’t enough. Anxieties in life can come involuntarily, and recognizing their irrationality may not be enough. But even mitigating the toxic belief structures that many of us hold which posits that frequent, persistent anxiety is useful, is an important first step.

What are your thoughts? This is an idea I’ve only recently been exploring, so I’m curious to see whether it lines up with your experience. Bonus points for anyone with good references to research that supports or contradicts my hypothesis!

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