In his book The Lucky Years, Dr. David Agus explores what he calls “the power of context.” “If you throw a lit match into a dewy wet forest, what happens? Nothing. But toss that same incendiary device into a parched landscape that hasn’t seen rain in a long time, and you’ll soon have a quickly moving fire on your hands. The difference between these two environments — one damp and saturated and another dry and thirsty — means everything in terms of how they respond to that spark.”
This obviously applies to our physical health, but it applies just as powerfully to our collective health. When it comes to physical health, Dr. Agus writes, “If I were to pluck at random one hundred people over the age of fifty from the streets of New York City and sequence their DNA, many of them will show mutations for genes that can trigger leukemia. But only a small fraction of them will ever develop it. What explains this? Again, go back to the image of the forest. One has an environment that effectively squelches the flame while the other has an environment that feeds it.”
When it comes to our collective health, how we deal with the multiple crises and problems around us also depends on the power of context — in other words, our resilience. In the final weeks of 2016, it’s easy to reflect on the year’s seemingly unending string of crises and bad news — from the Aleppo horrors and the tragedy of millions of refugees to the multiple terrorist incidents and our deeply polarized country. But there is another crisis — a public health crisis — that remains buried, even as authorities including the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, the RAND Corporation, and the World Health Organization have sounded the alarm. It is the epidemic of stress and burnout — a global and escalating crisis that the Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot has called “civilization’s disease.”
The CDC has called just one component of this epidemic, sleep deprivation, a public health crisis. And at the end of November, the RAND Corporationfound that insufficient sleep costs the U.S. $411 billion annually, which adds up to 2.28 percent of GDP. The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion. Japan, where death from overwork is common enough that there’s a word for it, karoshi, loses even more — 2.92 percent of GDP due to sleep deprivation. But from scanning the news or scrolling through your friends’ social feeds, you wouldn’t know it. Our burnout crisis lacks the headline-grabbing spark of the Zika virus outbreak, or the Brexit referendum, or the untimely death of a beloved pop star or film icon. But the numbers are staggering, and the consequences are sweeping. The American Academy of Family Physicians found that two-thirds of all doctors’ office visits are for stress-associated conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
In addition to the profound effects on our physical health, there’s the toll stress and burnout takes on our mental health. A sad example exemplified, by the data, that over 6 million teenagers suffer from an anxiety disorder, and one in six Americans take psychiatric drugs, such as antidepressants or sedatives.
And this isn’t just another crisis — it’s a crisis that’s connected to how we deal with all the other crises. How? Well, we know that stress, burnout, and sleep deprivation compromise our immune system. The reason for this, of course, isn’t because when we’re burned out we somehow come into contact with new germs or new bacteria and viruses. These hostile elements are always around us, but when we’re burned out, our ability to deal with them becomes compromised. Our body has a finite amount of energy, and when that energy is shunted to dealing with stress, other systems pay the price. We become less resilient, and things that aren’t ordinarily a problem break through and wreak havoc. And this is all the more unfortunate because it is preventable.
This breakdown affects not just our physical resilience, but our mental resilience as well. One recent study found that sleep deprivation can actually create false memories. The researchers, from the University of California, Irvine, found that participants who slept five hours or less were significantly more likely to report memories of having seen a news video they hadn’t in fact seen. They were also much more likely to incorporate false information, given to them by researchers, into their own personal stories. “We already know that sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on your health and cognitive functioning,” said lead researcher Steven Frenda. “It seems another consequence may be that it makes our memories more easily manipulated and more pliable.”
On an individual level, these findings are troubling enough. Now, imagine an entire nation of individuals suffering from a resilience deficiency. Our collective ability to creatively confront and solve problems is, after all, only as good as the sum of our individual abilities to do so. In a culture fueled by burnout, a culture that has run itself down, our national resilience becomes compromised. And when our collective immune system is weakened, we become more susceptible to viruses that are part of every culture because they’re part of human nature — fear-mongering, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, and demagoguery. In healthy times, we’re collectively able to identify these poisonous elements and reject them. In not-so-healthy times, they are much more able to break through to the surface and spread.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” Where this line falls determines whether the “better angels of our nature” dominate a culture, or whether something more dark and hateful within us is allowed to take root.
And when something goes from being a localized problem to a collective one, that’s when we are confronted with an epidemic, not unlike what happens with physical viruses. The Zika virus, for example, has been around for a long time, having been first isolated in Uganda in 1947. But it was only in 2007 that it began spreading outside of this small, contained area. Similarly, in our political life we’ve seen forces and ideas long confined to the margins gain momentum and enter the mainstream. For all the progress we’ve made in so many areas, we also find ourselves more susceptible — both individually and collectively — to all the political viruses that surround us on a daily basis, waiting for a chance to break through.
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of a change in the national temperature, brought on by the high levels of tension, stress and distrust out there right now.
As the curtain rises on 2017, the crises we’re facing — domestic and international, physical and mental — are real and so are the stakes. But how we, as individuals and as a society, deal with them — whether we are defeated by them or strengthened and fortified to meet them head-on — depends entirely on us. When we bolster our own individual resilience, we have a much better chance that our “better angels” will prevail.