The United States of Nervous Wrecks

Nervous Wrecks

Americans are, by and large, nervous wrecks.

Great new article on this topic from Wharton. It’s called “How The Pursuit of Happiness Has Made Us Nervous Wrecks,” and honestly, I doubt I could agree with a headline more. I used to write a lot about happiness on here — I personally struggle with that topic, as I think we all probably do. Over time, I stopped writing as much about happiness on this blog. Why? First off: happiness is bullshit. We’ve all seen the memes about “choosing to be happy,” and that’s great. It’s also largely a lie. You can be content, but I don’t know a lot of people who are truly, consistently happy. Just like “bad employees,” it’s not necessarily a fixed characteristic. People are happy on Wednesday and miserable on Thursday. Employees are great at one project and awful at a second one. Maybe we should put people in boxes less, right?

Second reason I write less about happiness: this blog is mostly about work, and happiness at work is kind of a giant scam. (So is employee engagement, in large measure.) I have friends and family who love their jobs. Good for them! But I’d say 7 in 10 people I know really dislike or outright hate their job — and usually because of a clueless, berating-style manager. Work should ideally be a means to an end. Unfortunately, for many people, it’s not. It’s a source of relevance, self-worth, and the line between “where work ends” and “where family can begin” is very, very blurred. (Thank you, mobile email!)

We spend 10-12 hours/day (more?) at work, and that whole context is turning us into nervous wrecks. Just how big of wrecks? Let’s dive deeper.

What does this Wharton interview say about us being nervous wrecks?

Let me hit you with a pull quote from the top:

The World Health Organization says that America is the most anxious country on the planet and by a wide margin. A second-place country is very far down the list from America. We are, in this country, more likely to suffer from clinical symptoms of anxiety than anywhere else on the planet.


And now let me give you another one related to work from a bit further down:

I’ve talked in the book about this whole idea of happiness in the workplace. It used to be that work was work and home was where you tried to find happiness and your social life and all the rest of it. There’s been a deliberate blurring of those boundaries. You see it where workplaces are offering dentists and doctors and video games and free food and that sort of thing to keep people working longer hours. [Employers are] even sending their staff to happiness training and mindfulness training.

Ah-ha! Scam No. 3! If you apply for a job and they say “we have dry cleaning right here at the HQ,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the senior executives care about you getting errands done. It usually means they want you at work at 8pm. Many people miss this distinction, though. As a result, we’re becoming nervous wrecks.

What about work stress?

That’s 100 percent on the rise with many people. I have a theory about this, and probably most won’t agree with it — but maybe some will. Personally, I think work is not as complicated as we often make it. In reality, the deal is: you get a job, you agree to a set of responsibilities, you get compensated. If you do them well, maybe you have advancement potential. And if you do them poorly, you get fired. Managers should be in charge of communicating when workflow or priorities change. Executives should worry about the money and drive the relationships that make more money. This should be the ecosystem.

In some places, it is.

In many other places, it’s Chinese fire drill after “sense of urgency” project No. 17,489 for the year followed by conference call then aimless meetings and OH GOD TOM FROM FINANCE NEEDS THIS THING STOP AND DO IT OH WAIT NOW HE DOESN’T NEED IT.


That’s work to most people. Are we surprised we’re all nervous wrecks?

What are some other things making us nervous wrecks?

Let me give you a solid list off the top of my dome:

I could go on and on. You get it.

Can we make ourselves less of nervous wrecks?

Of course. Anyone can turn their stuff around. It all begins with priority (what’s important to you) and some semblance of direction (how do you want to get there). Most people are already 0-for-2. It’s usually like “I want to live in this place at this hood so I need to make this money and OK I’ll tolerate some other stuff here.” A lot of people don’t actively think about their lives. They just live them. Now, too much thinking is bad too. I’m guilty of that all the time, personally. But much like the reaction-response debate in workplaces, you need a little bit of both.

The problem is the same as the problem with work in some respects. We throw buzzwords at it. Self-help is an $11 billion industry; that’s the same size as Hollywood, give or take. Most self-help is useless. The term’s connotation is negative. “Mindfulness” is the new one. There are “mindfulness apps” now — and many. Mindfulness is essentially a Band-Aid on a dam. It works to an extent, and more for some people, but it’s not going to make us less of nervous wrecks.

You solve people problems — like anxiety — by dealing with people. It’s not software (SaaS!). It’s not apps. Deal with people and help them through the muck. Priorities, goals, cut-off times for work/family, no-screen nights, no phone-checking, whatever. Bosses will always be bad. Companies will always nickel-and-dime you; that stuff starts in the damn interview phases! You own your life. Get out and punch it in the neck like that KPI your boss is screeching in your ear about.

What else would you say about this nervous wrecks culture?

Ted Bauer


  1. I quit my poorly paid pharm tech job last week over mismanagement and bad employees: not filling prescriptions correctly, not assisting with incoming calls, expired drugs on shelves. I probably won’t even return to this line of work unless I get in at a hospital, but then again I don’t want to be bothered with insurance companies anymore. I’ll probably return to tax work for January thru April work.

    I worked with pharmacists and techs at the same place for 12 years. It showed in their complacency and an I don’t care, unprofessional behavior.

    Walgreens is particularly bad; they paid an $80 million fine in 2012 or 2014 for non compliance on pain medication particularly OxyContin. I was recently at a different Walgreens location. They will be answering to the state board of pharmacy real soon over lack of required diligence.

    You are right that so many people are harried. They take benzodiazepines and adderall regularly since they can’t focus when they would be better off doing less. It’s all bullshit.

  2. I view my job as a job. I don’t dislike what I do, but I’m not going to lie and say it is a place that inspires me to do great work. As far as tech writing goes, it’s the best gig I’ve had: it’s close to home, I like my manager, my work friends are awesome, and the actual building I work in is pretty nifty. But the work doesn’t make me happy…and I don’t expect it to.

    I have a coworker who, for years, put off his creative pursuits outside of work in an attempt to make what he enjoys away from work something he did at the day job. It took a long time before he realized, “No matter how hard I try, this isn’t as satisfying as making a video with my kids, friends, or other people.” Especially when he’d make a perfect video and a committee killed it with, “Put the slides from that PowerPoint in there. And screen shots of that thing. And say this…and that…”

    I’m happy at work when chatting with this good friend and some others. And sometimes I make a thing that, when done, makes me think, “That’s kinda neat…in a tech writerly kinda way.” But happiness is having a drink with my wife after work. It’s writing fiction and replying to things like this that are more thoughtful than, “Click here to level-up your impactfulness and maximize your returns on life!” BS. There’s a lot of happiness out there; for me, often in simple, repeatable things. I remember a November hike with my wife after work a couple years back as much as any trip we’ve taken because it was just a great walk in the woods just miles from home.

    No bucket list and selfies proclaiming, “Look at me, living life to its fullest!!!” and trying to figure out ways to monetize what I’m trying to convince myself is happiness. Happiness is an evening walk on a chilly night while looking up at the stars. Work will never beat that. Hell, in ways, not even vacations do…because there’s the stress of travel and so many other things. With an evening walk, all I do is put on my shoes, a jacket, and head out with my wife.

    • Everything you said is how I try and view my work vs. my life vs. my wife vs. my dog vs. whatever else, so I am glad we are somewhat aligned here 🙂

  3. Does the study look at the development of managers? So many of them beat employees for taking their horribly outlined direction literally, surrender to your idea in public and then retaliate against you, throw you under the bus and take credit for your power point presentation you spent 3hours on. Who’s stopping this bad behavior – I feel like it’s the root of employee unhappiness. So many just want to be respected and maybe be heard once in a while – so basic. Maybe our society needs to lay out KPI on employee happiness.

    • Read some of my other posts. I talk about this shit all the time.

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