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The Rise of Omnistress, Plus, Why Gen Z’s So Unhappy, And Everyone Else Is, Too

The Rise of Omnistress, Plus, Why Gen Z’s So Unhappy, And Everyone Else Is, Too

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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The Age of Joylessness

There’s a sort of question in the air these days. Why is Gen Z so unhappy? I think the answer to that is pretty…obvious. Take a look at the world, no? It’s not exactly in a good place. And yet I want to shade in that picture more than a little bit.

This question’s in the air partially thanks to a fellow called Jon Haidt. Haidt is a guy who every few years or so finds new reasons to blame young people for something or other—so, last time around, in the generation just before this, he was on the leading edge of the “they’re killing free speech on campus!” movement. Needless to say, here we are a few years later, and the “free speech” of the far right is hardly dead, but in ruder health than ever. Sort of an…incredibly bad argument.

This time around, Haidt says smartphones are to blame, and we “coddle” young people too much. Sigh. Do we? Or is the world melting down, and maybe, just maybe, it’s awful, frightening, and even terrifying growing up in such an age?

I want to coin a term. “Omnistress.” What does it mean? Just what it sounds like. And I think it explains a great deal about now. It’s not just young people who are unhappy, after all. Everyone is. We’d hardly be seeing our societies rupturing, and people fleeing to the arms of demagogues, if people were content, satisfied, and delighted with their lives.

The Rise of Omnistress

So. “Omnistress.” It means: when everything’s stressful. Even the things that shouldn’t be.

To really understand, let’s define stress.

What is stress? Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.

Now. What’s true about…the promise of modernity? That life shouldn’t be stressful, at least not all of it. Most of it should be pretty routine, if not sort of seared with joy, then at least humdrum, not stressy, certainly not panic inducing.

But that’s not remotely where we are now. We’re in the Age of Omnistress, and everything’s stressful. Even, perhaps, especially, all the little things that shouldn’t be, and when those add up, life begins to feel like a burden that’s too heavy to lift. 

Let me give you an example, which is just me walking Snowy down the street. We begin our little walk, and immediately I notice how people are far more aggressive and inattentive just…walking. I look at their faces, and I can see the growing disillusionment, and even impoverishment, on them. It’s there in the clothes they’re wearing, the expressions they have, and the way they sort of dash and veer. Nobody’s calm and just strolling.

My neighborhood’s a good barometer, in case you’re wondering. It’s not the kind of place that should be stressed out. But it is. So let’s continue my metaphorical walk.

I run into a friend, and he tells me he they’re going to have to move, because rents have risen so much. Meanwhile, he’s not getting as much as work as usual, because the economy’s not doing so well. He doesn’t know where they’ll go, and it’s putting incredible…stress…on him, his wife, their relationship.

We part, I worry about him for a moment, and then run into another friend, a dear old lady. She tells me how she doesn’t feel safe in parts of the neighborhood anymore, as poverty’s grown, and crime’s risen. She doesn’t feel she can rely on many of us, either, as people have turned inwards, absorbed by their own…stress.

I could go on. You get the drift. Life these days is a portrait of Omnistress. People are stressed out, but in a sort of different way: about everything, even things that should be mundane. But in this age, even everyday little things are anything but mundane: they can turn into monsters of problems that yield giant stress attacks.

Omnistress, or Stress that Comes From Everywhere, All the Time

Think about all the sources of stress just in my little parable above. Paying the bills, relationships, your neighborhood, safety, progress, the future, society, your place in it. None of these should really be that stressful. Not persistently and chronically and endemically so. Sure, there are moments in life when all these things will be stressful, but when so many people are distressed about them more or less all the time….

Then something’s going wrong.

Like I said, the promise of modernity is…maybe not a stress-free life, but certainly not one that’s just one long, wearying, vertiginous stress assault, and then you wake up and repeat the cycle. 

Why is that? Because the entire point of modern social contracts and institutions is to keep us safe. In the elemental sense. To ensure that if we work hard, and play by the rules, we’ll live a fairly comfortable life, with enough money to, for example, take a nice vacation here and there, live in a decent neighborhood, not worry too much about our autonomy or stability or futures. 

All that will just take care of itself, so long as we play our role. In this sort of paradigm, this social contract. Which is be good and decent and well-meaning people, who go out there and do our jobs, try to save, and while we might be human enough to be tempted here and there by a bit of vanity or pride or what have you, aren’t sort of overweeningly terrible people.

If we’re just normal people, in this sense of the word, the paradigm, the contract, promises us…contentment.

Maybe that’s even too strong a word. Just…a lack of sort of terrible, existential stress, at the very least, is maybe a better way to put it. Or “the pursuit of happiness,” if you want to put it a little more poetically and historically. However you choose to put it, the idea of modernity is that normalcy’s reward is contentment, not happiness guaranteed, but at least the promise of its eventual possibility. All of which is contingent on low and infrequent levels of stress, at least after you grind through school or what have you.

And that was a radical thing, idea, concept, make no mistake. In all the previous eras of history, all of the above would have been laughable. In every empire in creation, the idea that average people, aka peasants or serfs, should have anything like low and infrequent levels of stress, because there was the promise of happiness and contentment, which everyone deserved—that would’ve been laughable. Even, perhaps, for the nobles, whose only real purpose was conflict, and were supposed to die for their kings at a moment’s notice. If they didn’t even deserves happiness, then who did?

Nobody, really, was pre-modernity’s answer to this question, which you might call something like The Distribution of Happiness in society. In modernity, the revolution which happened was that a paradigm emerged which began to say happiness should exist, and it should be distributed broadly, as a reward for just…being a normal person…playing by the rules…doing the right thing…most of the time, enough of the time, for everyone else to have enough freedom to form their own self-determination and autonomy, too.

A beautiful and noble idea. But. Is it still with us?

When I talk to my friends these days, I’m struck by how Omnistressed they are. About…everything. Money. A lack thereof, even if they’re nominally “rich.” It’s effect on their relationships. Their kids. Their savings and assets. The future, society, the planet, and on and on. 

Human Brittleness, or “Don’t Push Me, I’m Close to the Edge”

And Omnistress does to them what I think it’s doing to all of us. It makes us brittle.

Think about what happens when you’re stressed out, all the time, by everything, or at least most of the time, by most things. You’re prone to suddenly…snap. In many ways. Maybe you lash out in anger at your partner or kids. Or maybe you find yourself weeping, suddenly, for a reason you can’t even discern. 

Maybe you get slowly worn down. You’re out of energy, and everything seems to feel heavy, a burden. Perhaps you wake up one day and begin having panic attacks. Or maybe it just feels like everything’s joyless.

Those are all sort of classic symptoms of depression. And yet in this case, I think we’ve all grown depressed, and barely even noticed it, because it’s happening to so many of us, all at once. Think of yourself or your friends, and be honest, and ask yourself: over the last year, two, three, five, how many feel much more listless, weary, a little bit less alive, more muted, unsure, even deadened…than they used to?

I’d say almost everyone I know is that way. I include myself, too, near the top of the list, because as an empath, I feel all this more than most.

The statistics back all this up. They’re beginning to tell a story of us that’s a sad one. Wherever we look, there’s emotional and psychological crisis, from rising despair and suicide, to skyrocketing negative emotions, to plummeting confidence and trust, to soaring pessimism. Doesn’t that all add up to a portrait of a civilization that’s…sort of…depressed?

Now, when I say that kind of things, I don’t mean them in DSM (that’d be the handbook for diagnosing psychological issues) terms. There isn’t a DSM for a society or civilization. It’s not that kind of idea. But we can and should be able to speak about our moods…

(Why) Psychology Needs a Social Paradigm Shift

In more than just an individualistic way. Because this is a great, grave failing of modern psychology. Moods aren’t just individualistic, but currents, that flow through social organizations, whether families, cities, towns, regions, or more. And in this case, we all seem to be going through this emotional episode together.

So, in the example we began with, “young people are unhappy.” As in: the majority of them say things like they “can’t function anymore.” None of these tidal shifts in our sentiments are individualistic, in just this way. They’re affecting many of us, most of us, touching all of us. You’d have to a tougher soul than anyone I know, for example, not to be stressed out by any of the following questions. How’s your bank account doing? How’s your society going to end up? Where will our planet be in a decade? Hey, just think about the economy for a second. How’s your career (really) going?


So it doesn’t just mean “everything’s stressful, because the world’s sort of falling apart.” It also means that we’re all in the world, and we’re going through this together. That’s the part we don’t know, or talk about nearly enough, because of course, just as Omnistress is a new idea, so too our norms are outdated now: we’re not supposed to talk about, share it, just grin and bear it, and go through it alone.

Our feelings belong only to us, and shifts in moods are individualistic, not connected to any larger pattern, and so it’s an imposition to pretend that we have anything to share emotionally with one another to begin with. But that’s never been true, and it’s rarely been untruer than right now.

A world in chaos, economies sputtering, polities eroding, societies fracturing, the future uncertain, planet boiling, future crumbling—that’s a place of Omnistress. Felt by all of us, even if we express it in different ways, some of us turning to demagogues in terror, some of us remaining constructive and humanistic. We are all in this together, and yet—have we ever felt so alone and apart?

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