People are tired. Like, really tired. As evidenced by recent trends such as Quiet Quitting, Coffee Badging, Bare Minimum Mondays, and most of all, The Great Resignation—when over 47 million Americans voluntarily resigned from their positions—people are feeling a strain on more than just their work calendars; they're feeling it on their spirits. We’re now in the era of “The Great Exhaustion,” what writer and computer science professor Cal Newport has called a time when people are looking to reestablish their relationship with work in order to reduce their pervasive sense of drain.
Most people aren’t surprised to hear about “The Great Exhaustion.” We know that we are tired, and we see it in the choices we make every day: ordering dinner because we don’t have the energy to make it, trying to find ways to work from home so we don’t have to add a two-hour commute to our day, infrequent social outings because it is impossible to coordinate busy adult schedules, complete de-prioritization of hobbies—the list goes on and on. People feel so fatigued that they are cutting out activities that used to be commonplace and low stress, like working out and going to the supermarket. Factor in recovering from the pandemic, inflation, and global stressors, and you’ve got a recipe for complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
So why are levels of exhaustion increasing? I speak with burned out professionals for a living, and I have heard countless unique reasons for exhaustion. The three factors that are commonly overlooked but that I believe are contributing the most are unsustainable lifestyles, exposure to stress outside of our control, and financial insecurity. These are facets of our lives that we have managed to normalize. But this normalization has caused us to disregard their impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.
What is the opposite of feeling exhausted? Feeling energized. But what, exactly, helps us to feel energized?
New York Times-bestselling author and researcher Dan Buettner spent his career studying “blue zones,” areas in the world where people live longer, healthier lives than anywhere else. In his work, he explains that people who live in blue zones have one thing in common: they live a human-needs-first lifestyle, in which the things that we need as human beings are prioritized. That means eating whole foods, having rich social lives, getting regular movement, and working with a purpose rather than for the sake of maximizing productivity.
This is a stark contrast to most people’s realities. Outside of these “blue zones,” most people eat processed foods, strategically plan activities to socialize and get movement, and treat work like it comes before everything else. Unfortunately, prioritizing elements found in blue zones requires spare time, energy, and money—things the average (tired) person does not have. An objective look at how most people are living day-to-day doesn’t paint a picture of human needs being met; it paints a picture of enduring our demands. We have not built a human-needs-first society; we have built a business-needs-first society, and it is starting to show.
Stress that is out of our control
Stress within our control (a big project we’re working on, balancing a demanding job and childcare, doing something that scares us) can be mitigated and builds confidence when addressed. Stress outside our control (violence in our cities, climate disasters, tragedy around the world, and inflation) makes us feel helpless. While it is important that we aren’t ignorant to what is going on in the world, it also weighs on us to take in so many stressors without the possibility of resolution.
That stress causes exhaustion is not revolutionary, but it is exposure to stress outside of our control that makes us lose hope. Hope is a powerful counter to exhaustion and burnout. We can endure difficulties with much higher morale when we retain hope that things will get better. When everywhere we turn there is news making us feel like things aren’t getting better, we begin to break down.
Read More: Feeling Off? It Could Be ‘Ambient’ Stress
The biological effect of exposure to these types of stressors cannot be overstated. Scrolling on our phone and watching a troubling two-minute video triggers a stress response in our body that can impact the rest of our day. A stress response each day for years damages our physical and mental health in ways that we often overlook.
Fifty years ago, a single income could afford you a house, car, wife, and kids. Nowadays, you’re lucky if a dual income can afford you some of those things. Having a hard job that supports your lifestyle is one thing; having a hard job that barely pays the bills is another. Much of the exhaustion we are seeing is frustration that working full-time (or more) doesn’t translate to the same security and buying power it used to. Why are we working if not to afford the lifestyle we desire?
When that lifestyle (going to a restaurant on special occasions, going to a concert with friends, getting your kids the Christmas gifts they want) becomes unaffordable, frustration is understandable. Frustration over time turns into defeat, and defeat looks an awful lot like exhaustion. We have been a work-centered society for generations; however, it is becoming increasingly harder to convince people to live a busy, work-centered life when it doesn’t translate to the quality of life that it used to.
The confluence of unsustainable lifestyles, stress out of our control, and financial insecurity creates a very tired group of people. The good news is that there are things within our control that can improve our quality of life and reduce exhaustion. Consider what augments your quality of life and makes you feel energized. Then consider what lowers your quality of life and makes you weary.
At the end of the day, how we feel is determined by small decisions we make. How much sleep we get, prioritizing a morning walk with a friend, consuming media thoughtfully, refusing to discuss work and work stress when we are off the clock—these small things make a big difference, but we must do them consistently and relentlessly. We can’t wait for changes to come from the top down; we must address the factors of exhaustion within our control to ensure we live healthy, peaceful, and satisfying lives.
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