While contemporary wisdom decries stress as a global disease that must be eradicated before it kills us all (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009), general system theory provides important perspective that illuminates stress as essential to growth, wellness, and survival. The system perspective provides insight into reasons contemporary society seems increasingly incapable of coping with daily reality, and suggests functional adaptability strategies for leveraging stress as a functional force.

Evaluating stress through a system perspective

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1972) argued that perspectives that see stress as a killer disease need to be balanced by the understanding that “stress… creates higher life” (p. 192). If organisms simply return to homeostatic equilibrium after being disturbed by external forces, life would have never evolved beyond amoebas. “Life is not a comfortable settling down in pre-ordained groves of being; at its best, [life] is… inexorably driven towards a higher form of existence” (p. 192).

Bertalanffy (1972) evoked Selye’s (1956) declaration about the secret of happiness being successful adaptation to changing conditions; the consequences of failing to adapt are “disease and unhappiness” (p. VII). Further, successfully reaching a stress-free state means death to the organism; a point people may want to keep in mind when they hear pitches about products and programs that will reduce or eliminate stress.

The affliction of affluence

Bertalanffy (1972) argued that rising affluence in American society has created an “unprecedented number of mentally ill” who live meaningless lives. Rather than being a stepping-stone toward higher order needs and self-transformation, affluence enables a society of neurotic whiners who seem incapable of handling reality.

Writing his observations in 1968, Bertalanffy made note of the organismic perspectives that were replacing the “robot psychology” of behaviorist philosophy. Goldstein’s organismic theory (Hall & Lindzey, 1959), the humanist framework proposed by Maslow, Rogers and May (Maslow, 1968), and Gestalt psychology were changing perspectives from that of the human as a passive robot or a load-bearing structure to that of an “an active personality system” that dynamically changes and grows through interaction with self and environment (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 207).

Bertalanffy (1987) argued that the system perspective represented by organismic psychology would provide a “more adequate perceptual framework” than mechanical perspectives for understanding human behavior and promoting human wellness because it allows an understanding of the interacting causes affecting the system, rather than isolating symptoms while allowing the disease to fester.

For example, cognition is a function of the brain, but impaired cognition might influence physiology, perceptions, experience, context, emotion, motivation, and many other factors. Understanding that disturbances to the system can cause mental dysfunction can lead to therapies that treat the patient, not the symptom. Applied to stress, this implies that dealing with stress is not a matter of simply reducing or eliminating stressors, but helping the system to interact with and handle stressors on a psychological and physiological level.

Lack of stress is harmful to human systems

Another important insight gained from systems thinking is that the human is an active being that grows and thrives by solving problems, not by avoiding them. Contemporary stress strategies tend to consider environmental factors as annoyances and threats that need to be fixed, reduced, or eliminated so that the human can achieve a stress-free state before the stressor causes the system irreparable damage.

In comparison, a system perspective provides a more complete understanding by saying that efforts to reduce or eliminate stress are not only wrong; they also may exacerbate the problem. Rather than seeing stress as a negative force, system theory reinvigorates the ancient wisdom by seeing stress as a vital catalyst for growth and survival for individuals, organizations, and societies.

System theory recognizes that the lack of stress, a state of equilibrium, means death to a biological system. Excessive and prolonged stress can harm an organism; however, system tension is necessary for the system to grow and develop. Removing stress from a human system is “apt to produce insufferable anxiety, hallucinations, and other psychosis like symptoms” in individuals and societies (Bertalanffy, 1972).

Fritjof Capra (1996) applies systems thinking to the earth system, saying that times of extreme stress on the environment serve as catalysts for evolution of the planet and its interacting biological and physiological components. For example, a meteor may have wiped out the dinosaurs, but served as the catalyst for an explosion of animal and plant species; creating an environment conducive to human existence.

A missing purpose

What system theory seems to leave out, however, is any sense of purpose to development. For example, Capra (1996) says that patterns emerge from development, but no underlying purpose exists for people, planet, and cosmos. Humanists and religions alike seem to counter this perspective, seeing the human as a holistic, dynamic, purposive being with, as Maslow (1968) states, “godlike” potential.

Maslow (1987) asserted that this potentially fuels an almost universal desire to grow toward potential; however, most people choose not to grow because growth is hard—stressful. People simply do not want stress in their lives and do whatever they can to avoid what they perceive as stress. Believing stress is a disease that will kill them (Oz, 2009) either provides people with an excuse to do nothing or inflicts anxiety that common stressors are serious threats. In addition, removing purpose from the development process may exacerbate psychological problems because it may diminish human hopes, aspirations, and motivations.

Like Bertalanffy, Maslow (1965) observed that the more affluent humans become, the less they seem able to handle even the simple realities of life. For example, the United States has arguably become one of the most affluent nations in history, but seems to be becoming a nation of people who are decreasingly able to cope; developing instead a collective tendency to whine about how life should be easy, while failing to appreciate and build on the blessings at hand. Maslow would call this “Grumble Theory”, which asserts that the more people have the louder they complain about what they don’t have; and the more one need or complaint is satisfied, the more people will find to complain about.

Noble truth and neuroticism

Supporting the system theory assertions that stress is a vital component in the development and survival of a system, Scott Peck (1978) introduced to Western audiences the first noble truth of Buddhism as an initial step toward psychological wellness. Peck asserted that once people accept that life is difficult, they can stop whining about obstacles and start recognizing—and creating—growth opportunities. However, the more people complain about how life should be different in order to accommodate their sensibilities, the more difficult life can become. Complaining about, rather than dealing with, reality increases anxiety to the point of neurosis—which Jung (1973) called “a substitute for legitimate suffering”.

In fairness, when individuals experience stress, the focus of physical and mental processes causes a myopia that absorbs the individual into the immediate trial. Legitimate suffering seems to be blocked from the mind during neurotic struggles with common stressors. Overwhelmed by histrionics in traffic jams are wars, holocausts, coercive dictatorships, disability, abuse, poverty, being part of the food chain. Many Americans who travel to other countries, visit blighted areas of their own country, or who serve on the battlefield will witness legitimate suffering. The unfortunate who live through abuse, war, poverty, concentration camps, and other heinous events experience legitimate suffering.

However, in assessing the typical “suffering” in American society, Bertalanffy seems to join Peck, Maslow, and Jung in passing a diagnosis of “neurotic”.

Some caveats. First, this mental dysfunction is not unique to American society; it is a common affliction of affluent cultures. In addition, many affluent people successfully maintain wellness and raise functional children in affluent environments. However, rising affluence does seem to correlate directly with decreasing resilience for many; what should be a stepping-stone seems to be a crutch for some people and societies.

Brains hard-wired for hard work

Brain research is showing that the way people interpret and respond to experience can trigger chronic stress reactions that harm the system (Aldwin & Revenson, 1987; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008; Norden, 2007). Other emerging brain research is providing additional insights into the importance of stress for supporting wellness and productivity in human systems, and can help identify a cause of the growing incapacity to cope with reality from an affluent state.

While modern science is treating rising depression rates with pills for adults, children, and even pets, Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert (2008) says that “research has yet to find convincing evidence” (p. 31) that the pills are treating the cause of depression. If Lambert is correct, general system theory might help psychologists to understand that treating symptoms with pills may not only allow the disease to fester but may also exacerbate the problem; treating mental dysfunction may be more complex than popping pills.

Echoing Bertalanffy, Maslow, and thousands of years of religion and philosophy, brain research is showing that the easier life is, the more depressed people become. Lambert (2009) says, “Our cushy, digitally driven, contemporary lifestyles… may be at the root of the soaring rates of depression” (p. 32). The human brain appears to be hardwired to derive satisfaction from meaningful action that comes from effectively managing complex and challenging tasks.

The brain’s innate effort-driven-rewards process is an evolutionary tool that gave humans satisfaction in purposeful activities that fostered adaptability and survival, and that builds resilience against emotional disorders. The lifestyles of modern humans have significantly changed, but humans have “retained the innate need for achieving effort-driven reward. The more humans fire the effort-driven-rewards system, “the greater the sense of well-being” (p. 34).

For example, an individual may gain more satisfaction from playing a soccer game than playing a video game, hunting and cooking a meal may provide more satisfaction than picking up lunch at a drive-thru, sharing stories with friends around a campfire may be more rewarding than exchanging text messages.

Case study: Hikikomori

Modern Japanese history offers a case study in how affluent “cushy, digitally driven contemporary lifestyles” (Lambert, 2008, p. 32) may be eroding the capacity of individuals and society to cope.

The Meiji Ishin [revolution or restoration, depending on the political perspective] in the late 1800s imposed radical political and social changes that transformed an isolated feudal system into a modern imperial power exercising control throughout the Pacific Rim. Within seven years of its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan was an independent democracy that would grow from ashes into the second largest global economy in fewer than 40 years; interestingly, during the same period Americans were discovering and exploring stress.

However, rising affluence has fostered a vast gulf between youth and traditional Japanese values and work ethics, with aimless “lost generations” threatening the social fabric of the nation (Zielenziger, 2006). “We grew up too comfortable to take risks,” a Japanese university student told Psychology Today (Kelts, 2009).

Economically, globalization has broken the once strong bond between organization and employee as Japanese companies struggle to compete in a global information age (Zielenziger, 2006) to adapt. Socially, disoriented youth are increasingly choosing to avoid molding themselves into the conformist “salary man” role, and are rejecting rigid Japanese traditions and values.

Freeters, a term combining “freelance” with the German word “arbeiter”, are increasingly hopping from one part-time job to another so they can make just enough money to hang out (Japan Institute of Labor, 2000). NEETs, youth who are Not in Employment, Education, or Training, are living in a state of complete aimlessness (Japan Times, 2009).

NEETs can include children who are spoiled, suffer from psychological problems, or reject the rigid demands of Japanese workplaces. Being a freeter contributes to becoming a NEET because “a couple years in a dead-end ‘freeter’ job can make it impossible to even apply for many positions,” so young adults give up on working (p. para. 3). The Japanese Times editorializes that the solution to the problem is for society to change to accommodate the children: “government and companies need to help NEETs to constructively pursue fuller lives made rich by work, participation, and engagement” (para. 5).

Beyond the freeters and the NEETs are more than an estimated 1.5 million youth who are so unable to relate to others and adapt to the pressures of Japanese society that they shutter themselves in their rooms with Internet, television, and video games (Hattori, 2005). Some blame economic factors, but the Economist (2000) proposes that “young Japanese can afford to turn away from the old ways because their families are so well off they can indefinitely support unemployed adult children at home” (para. 11).

Kelts (2009) echoes that the recluses are “living off the largess of mom and dad” (p. 29). This also implies that mom and dad share the blame; social critics in Japan agree, blaming the rising problems on a breakdown of the family system.

For example, Kelts (2009) reports that the Japanese family system is struggling because parents have been marrying later and having fewer children so they can sustain a higher level of comfort. Affluence allows parents to provide for children everything “except the strength and guidance to navigate the myriad choices and uncertainties of the 21st century.” At the same time, families are organizing to demand that the government and society provide them with support for their reclusive children.

From his research with 35 families dealing with hikikomori youth, Yuichi Hattori (2005) concluded that factors contributing to hikikomori cases include:

In addition to affecting the individual and family, Hattori says that hikikomori potentially hurts Japanese society because it seems to be affecting marriages, birthrates, and employee pools. This increases pressure on social planners to allow immigration that further dilutes traditional Japanese society and undermines government policy of maintaining racial purity (Willis & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2008).

Stepping-stones and roadblocks

As Bertalanffy (1969) argued, contemporary affluent society may be suffering from rising mental dysfunction, increasingly losing individual and collective capacity to cope with reality. Meanwhile, contemporary stress dialogs exacerbate problems by getting people stressed about stress may learn something from system theory.

General system theory shows how the dynamically interacting factors that contribute to rising affluence tend to decrease human capacity to cope as individuals and society move further from the values and practices that fueled developing affluence. This does not mean that affluence is a bad thing; what people do with affluence makes it good or bad. In other words, it is not money that is the root of evil; it is the love of money over all other things that is evil.

Humans are not pawns who simply react to environmental factors; they are dynamic organisms and purposeful beings with potential to transcend self, and to benefit self and others by using affluence as a stepping-stone and not a roadblock. Removing the purpose and values upon which humans attain affluence, and building the expectation that reality should be something that it is not can contribute to growing anxiety and mental dysfunction in individuals and society.

Works Cited

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(C) 2017 Brent Duncan, PhD. All rights reserved.