Review: ‘The Upside of Stress’, by Kelly McGonigal


Kelly McGonigal is a convert. A health psychologist who teaches at Stanford University, for years she had held to the conventional view that stress is bad for you.
But when a few years ago she came across research which suggested that stress is bad for you only when you believe it to be damaging, she had to reconsider. Indeed, the same research found that people who lived with stress but did not view it as harmful were the healthiest people of all.McGonigal started digging deeper into the subject and the result is this book, which argues that by recognising and working with stress, rather than trying to ignore or suppress it, we can perform better and achieve more.
It is a bold and counter-intuitive thesis, and she makes quite a good case for it. In particular, she forces the reader to take a more nuanced view. For example, there is more than one kind of response to stress. There are alternatives to “fight or flight”. We can also rise to the challenge.
What is more, some of our fundamental concepts could be misconceived. The Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye carried out significant research into the subject in the 1930s, studying the behaviour of rats in experiments. But, as McGonigal points out, some of these tests involved randomised electric shocks and near-death by drowning, hardly the common experience of many humans. The stress the rats endured was of the worst kind. What safe conclusions should we draw from that?
McGonigal says that stress is an important signifier, not something to be ignored. “You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress,” she writes.
She suggests a three-step approach to change our “mindset”: acknowledge stress when you experience it, welcome the stress by recognising that it’s a response to something you care about, then make use of the energy it gives you.
Upside of Stress
McGonigal has the zeal of a convert, which possibly leads her to believe she has cracked the problem. There are some big claims. Working better with stress “could even mean the difference between having a heart attack at 50 or living into your nineties,” she says.
She acknowledges that not all life events can be managed away: “Not every trauma has an upside . . . you shouldn’t force a positive interpretation on every instance of suffering.” But only a few pages on she writes: “Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationship with stress.”
“Stress is harmful, except when it’s not,” she concludes. But something is missing: any reference to the large body of work carried out by Sir Michael Marmot over recent decades. He has shown that stress can be hard to avoid, or deal with, especially for those with lower status in an organisation.
McGonigal does concede that stress can be harmful when three things are true: you feel inadequate to it, it isolates you and it feels meaningless and against your will. Unfortunately, for quite a lot of people at work, that unholy trinity can apply all too often.

The writer is visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School
The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it, by Kelly McGonigal, Vermilion (£12.99)/Avery ($26.95)


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

David Aaronovitch

Karen Armstrong’s latest book is a 400-page and 1,470 footnote-long argument with London cab drivers about religion. They, along with American commentators, psychiatrists and Oxford academics have in Armstrong’s hearing, “recited like a mantra”, the phrase “Religion has been the cause of all major wars in history.” The result of such an expression has been to “load the violent sins of the 20th century on to the back of ‘religion’ and drive it out into the political wilderness.” Religion has become, she argues, “a scapegoat”.
It is a shame that so much effort has had to be expended on such an easily falsifiable premise. If I were to ask my children — all of whom have studied 20th-century history in the 21st century — to account for the violence of that period and to assign responsibility I am reasonably certain that they would mention Hitler and Stalin, fascism, nationalism and communism, but not the Pope, the Mahatma or the Rev Martin Luther King. But it is true that cabbies and dons do sometimes say these things without thinking them through and so Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, has written a heavy book to be dropped, from a great height, to crack this anti-religious nut.
But Armstrong’s argument, distilled, actually goes further than denying that religion is the cause of all major wars. Her view is that, in fact, it is the cause of no major wars at all and — properly understood — of almost no violence whatsoever. Whenever, to an untrained eye, it looks like religion might be in the frame for a conflict or a blood-letting, Armstrong deploys her evidence across the aeons (the book proper begins with the Sumerians of Uruk some 5,000 years ago) to show that it wasn’t.
In large part this is an irritating definitional argument, derived from the work of an American theologian, William T Cavanaugh. In 2009 Cavanaugh published The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, which said that what we call “religion” is and was inseparable from the secular world. So, when you think something is religion, actually it’s politics or economics. Furthermore, trying to make out that there’s something separate called religion is just a way the modern, liberal nation state has of asserting its dominant values.
To a Marxist brought up during the discussions of the Sixties and Seventies, this contention has a familiar, leaden ring to it. It is both reductionist and determinist. The old, crude base and superstructure model was held to suggest that economics and class position (ie, power) determined all else. In that way religion, like relations between the sexes, literature or art, was a function of where we had got to in the material world. When it was time for feudal society to supercede slavery we got Christianity, when capitalism needed to take over we got Protestantism. I once met a young gay Stalinist who thought that under socialism he’d be straight.
But the problem with this model was that though it told you something, it didn’t tell you everything. It was clear that the world of ideas ( “ideology”) had autonomy. People would do things, terrible or amazing things, that had nothing to do with class relations or the stages of history, but because they believed something.
I will skip over Armstrong’s now obligatory use of cod neuroscience to boost her case, as I will vault over the Assyrians, the Aryans and the early civilisations of the Indus delta. I’ll pause a moment, however, to reject Armstrong’s further attempt to define her way to freedom by suggesting that “violence” means the “subtle violence” of any system of inequality. If nothing is religion and everything is violence, then yes, we can’t usefully say that religion sometimes causes violence. And we didn’t need 400 pages to tell us.
Yet we have them. And after a while — for all their apparent erudition — they begin to read like the improbable words of a desperate counsel, wig askew, cobbling together the best defence she can for the tattooed bruiser in the dock.
Take this, on the persecution and expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, the forcible conversion of those who remained and the subsequent hounding and execution of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of those conversos by the Inquisition. The Reyes Catolicos (Catholic Monarchs) Ferdinand and Isabella had petitioned the Pope to be allowed to begin an Inquisition in Spain to deal with Jewish influence. But according to Armstrong they “were not personally anti-Semitic, but simply wanted to pacify their kingdom”. So why did pacification need to take this denominational form? It was, says Armstrong “caused by financial and social jealousy as much as religious allegiance”. She goes on, “the Spanish Inquisition has become a byword for fanatical ‘religious’ intolerance, but its violence was caused less by theological than political considerations.”
Were there no rich Christians to be jealous of? Why “politically” pick on the Jews, force them to convert and then become paranoid about the authenticity of their conversions?
As I was writing this review a book arrived from Penguin: The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, written by a monk called Thomas of Monmouth. It is the story of a young boy whose death in 1144 was blamed on the Jews. The principal accuser was the monk Thomas. This was the first “blood libel” against Jews, claiming that they used Christian blood in their rituals. The first of many.
Thomas’s loathing of the Jews had nothing to do with money or power. To him the Jews were suspect because they were not Christians — they did not believe. His reasons for inciting violence were religious. The motives of the Spanish Inquisition — what they believed — were religious. On 9/11 Mohammed Atta thought he was headed for Paradise not Bondi.
Armstrong may assert that jihadis are “chiefly motivated by the desire to escape a stifling sense of insignificance and pointlessness in secular nation states that struggle to absorb foreign minorities”, but not one of them has ever said so. After all, they could have achieved all that by going on X Factor, like the non-religious and the children of taxi drivers do. And no one would have died.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head, 500pp, £25; ebook £13.99. To buy this book for £22.50, visit thetimes.co.uk/bookshop or call 0845 2712134