Consensus says that stress is all downsides for our lives and health. Stress is something we want to remove from our lives as much as possible.
Kelly McGonigal’s book challenges this consensus. Her intellectual path began with this paper. The authors found that the existence of stress and the perception that stress negatively affects health outcomes were correlated. However, the existence of stress and the perception that stress can be beneficial correlates with better health outcomes. In fact, "The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health."
This is evidence for the Stoic emphasis on the importance of cognition in our lives. Consider Epictetus' famous maxim: "It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things."
That said, a number of other studies that Kelly McGonigal in the book sound dubious. It's a pre-replication crisis book, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a lot of it doesn't replicate.
Skepticism about some of the experiments she describes aside, the general thesis seems importantly correct. It's aligns with Stoic reframing techniques developed thousands of years ago.
There were two other useful upshots of the book for me.
First, there's a common view that when we respond to stress this triggers a fight-or-flight response. This view is too crude. In addition, to fight or flight we can connect to others, engage, or find meaning.
- "When you feel your body responding to stress, ask yourself which part of the stress response you need most. Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow?"
As evidence of this, during the stress response oxytocin, a social bonding hormone, is often released.
Second, stress enhances our lives since it’s associated with meaning. Having something to fight for provides meaning. There will be stress. That's part of what fighting for something involves. In McGonigal’s words:
I call this the stress paradox. High levels of stress are associated with both distress and well-being. Importantly, happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness. Even though most people view stress as harmful, higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health, and satisfaction with our lives.