Failure to achieve important goals induces stress.
Although some of these important goals (such as the need for control, competence and relationships) are universal, there are substantial variations between societies in the way goals are expressed. People’s goals are determined to a large extent by the society in which they live.
If, within a particular society, high value is placed on things that most people achieve, then most people will experience few stressors. However, if high value is placed on things that few achieve, then many people will experience stressors.
Societies that emphasise material achievement will tend to create situations where people feel dissatisfied with what they have achieved.
It follows that societies that emphasise material achievement will tend to create situations where people feel dissatisfied with what they have achieved. Overambitious goals create stress and detract from health.
Societies vary in the extent to which unattainable goals are encouraged, and they therefore vary in the extent to which people experience stress. When a group of people have a high life expectancy - such as people living in the Japanese island of Okinawa - it is common to examine their diet because of a widespread belief that health is primarily due to diet.
The reality is that the diets of people with high life expectancy are very variable. There is one common factor in societies where people have a high life expectancy: people are happy with their lot. People are not trying to achieve what is seldom attainable.
If parents expect their children to excel at school, then children will often develop the same values as their parents and wish to excel. However, only one person can be top of the class. If everyone wants to be top of the class, then all but that one person will be disappointed.
If everyone wants to be top of the class, then all but that one person will be disappointed.
Modern society has become increasingly adept at satisfying the material needs of its members, and it does this by encouraging aspiration and achievement. But that very same aspiration and achievement, which has done so much to make life easier for all of us, has a dark side: it is associated with an increased incidence of stress.
The increased incidence of stress is associated with poor health and unhappiness. It can come as no surprise, therefore, that some people decide to opt out of the ‘rat race’. And yet such opting out is not really possible, because, ultimately, we are all dependent on one another.
There is a tension between ensuring freedom and protecting the members of a society from themselves. There is a tension between laws that are enacted to protect people from their own desires and the value placed on freedom.
Dangerous drugs are made illegal because of the harm done to people who take them, but the laws vary between countries. Equally, laws governing the corporal punishment of children vary between countries.
Although the harm caused by stress is recognised by lawgivers, the way they react to that problem varies from country to country. Many societies, however, have laws or codes of practice that require managers, CEOs and board members to be aware of and reduce the impact of stress on their employees - and that duty of care extends to preventing stress from clouding their own judgements.