Stress is one of the most talked about topics in modern society. About 610,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, which accounts for about one out of every four deaths. There are many things that contribute to heart disease, the most agreed upon being smoking, excessive drinking, obesity, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise.
But the one factor that is not as clear cut is stress. Even so, common sense tells me that excess stress cannot be a good thing for your body. I used the term excess stress because I believe that a small amount of stress is actually healthy for you.
As Viktor Frankl pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning, a “tensionless state” is a bedfellow of a meaningless life. Because life is finite, there is an inherent urgency to life, so the trick is to become adept at finding the right balance — always giving the edge to less, rather than more, stress.
Even so, some high-stress events are unavoidable. However, I don’t believe that an occasional high-stress situation will do you any more harm than an occasional scoop of ice cream.
The problem is that most people experience far too much unnecessary stress, allowing themselves to get stressed over things that, in the overall scheme of things, simply aren’t that important.
I thought about this last week when my son came home from work and was upset because he had gotten a traffic ticket on his way to work. He was frustrated because he honestly did not know what he had done wrong.
The officer who stopped him explained that he was guilty of an HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) violation, which generally means you were driving in a lane designated for cars with two or more occupants. My son explained that if he was in the right lane (which he was), and since the far left lane is almost always the HOV lane, he couldn’t understand how he could be in the wrong.
The policeman told him that once he had passed the Beltway going east, he was automatically in the HOV lane. To which my son responded, “But if I was in the right lane, which I was, then what lane was I supposed to be in.” “No lane,” the officer responded. “You have to turn at the Beltway.”
It didn’t make sense to my son, nor did it make any sense to me when he explained it. He was upset about it all day at work and talked about it at length after he got home.
Aside from having to pay $200 for the ticket, the fact that he didn’t know what he had done wrong really bugged him. He talked about hiring an attorney and going to court to try to argue his case before a judge.
I explained to him that even if he really hadn’t done anything wrong (and from his description, it sounded as though he hadn’t), it was a bad idea to invest another $500-$1,000 for an attorney and spend many hours preparing for, and appearing in, court.
In most cases, it’s your word against the policeman’s, and the odds are overwhelmingly against you. But even if you win, you’re out perhaps $1,000 or more than if you had you just paid the ticket.
I told him that a much better idea would be to spend all those wasted hours on doing things to increase his income. Or just using the time to enjoy life would be a far better investment in his well-being.
To his credit, he then went to his computer and did some excellent research on the Internet and — Bingo! — he found a page that explained in clear, concise terms why he had gotten a ticket. And, guess what? The ticket was legitimate!
He had, indeed, clearly violated the law. I myself had never heard of this particular code before, so I’ve probably been guilty of violating it myself, perhaps a number of times.
The next morning, my son called me about 7:00 am on his way to work, upbeat and laughing. He said he had just seen the sign the policeman had mentioned — one he had never bothered to look at before — and it clearly stated that between the hours of 6:30 am and 9:00 am, eastbound cars on Interstate 66 must turn onto the Beltway rather than continue on to D.C. on Interstate 66.
And, after the fact, the reason was obvious. After you pass the Beltway, the long stretch of road leading into D.C. is only two lanes wide, so bureaucrats try to keep the traffic down as much as possible.
Isn’t it amazing that the main road leading into the most powerful city in the world from Northern Virginia is only two lanes wide? Wouldn’t it have been nice had the government taken some of the money it spent on building first-class infrastructure in Iraq and used a few billion or so to widen the roads leading into our own nation’s capital?
But let’s get back to unnecessary stress. The fact that it turned out that my son really had violated the law is quite beside the point. Even if he had done nothing wrong, or if the policeman had lied, the bigger point is that the most rationally selfish thing he could have done was just pay the fine immediately, throw the whole event out to the universe to handle, and move on with his life.
When anything negative happens, the first thing you should ask yourself is: Is this going to have a major impact on my life if I don’t become involved? In all but a handful of cases, the answer is no. And if the answer is no, dispose of the matter as simply and quickly as possible and move on.
Not only was this a great learning experience for my son, but I got a lot out of it as well. Sure, I’ve known for decades that it’s mentally and physically healthy to let go of little irritants, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to say than do, so I’ve made a commitment to renew my efforts to master this psychological skill.
The mental hurdle you have to get over is thinking about whether an expense is fair or unfair. Hey, the whole world is unfair — next subject. The question is how much of your thought and time (read, stress) are you willing to put into trying to save a few bucks?
It all gets down to pragmatism versus emotion. And today I think pragmatism rates much higher on my son’s list of priorities than emotion.
That said, you might want to monitor yourself and observe how your pragmatism fares in its daily battles with emotion as well. Remember, the objective is to eliminate unnecessary stress.
Oh, and one other lesson worth remembering: When you’re 100 percent certain that you’re right about something, it’s probably a good idea to go back and do some more research. The number of times I’ve been both certain and wrong is downright embarrassing.