Joyful Stress

This weekend’s episode of Bullseye, an NPR show hosted by Jesse Thorn, featured legendary TV producer Norman Lear. It’s worth a listen for many reasons, but at the very end of the interview Thorn asked Lear what it was like to be producing six network sitcoms – all of which were in the top 10 in the ratings – at the same time. His answer was wonderful. He said “Was it stressful? It was exceedingly stressful. But there is stress and there is ‘joyful stress.’ Every time it ended in laughter.”

Now, we can’t all be producers of comedy shows where our work literally ends in laughter. But I love this idea of “joyful stress.” When people ask me how I do it (a question that drives me crazy),  I tend to talk about how much I enjoy all the parts of my life – my work is meaningful and fulfilling and gratifying and my children are amazing and wonderful and, yes, joyful. I am enjoying this time in my life more than any other. And it certainly helps that I’m running a nonprofit whose mission I believe in passionately, but it was also true when I was running corporate marketing for Return Path, a software company. I don’t think you need to have a “cool” or glamourous job to be fulfilled at work – in fact, some of the least gratifying jobs are the ones that look, on the outside, to be the most desirable. I felt “joyful stress” during my marketing days because I believed in the company and I was working with smart, committed colleagues who made the work we did exciting and interesting.

I think anyone can combine work and family in a way that is stressful but also joyful. It requires a mindset shift. If you expect that life will have stress but that you can rise to the challenge, you will rise to the challenge and when you don’t you’ll chalk it up to a bump in the road and keep going. If you expect that life is supposed to be free of stress, then you will view those bumps as intolerable. Laura Vanderkam wrote about this quite well in a post where she pointed to Pew research that found the most privileged working parents experienced the most difficulty balancing work and life. She’s also pointed out, in a few different posts, that many experiences that we think of as fun and exciting (travel comes to mind) also include a fair amount of stress. When you decide that the positive benefit of the activity outweighs the negative aspect it is actually easier to manage the stress.

What’s more, science suggests that a mindset shift about stress would also make us able to cope with it without the negative health consequences we’ve been taught are inevitable. In this TED talk, health researcher Kelly McGonigal explains that stress is only bad for you if you think it’s bad for you. Pretty meta, right? But it makes so much sense!

Without knowing there was science to back me up, I deliberately shifted my thinking about the stress of being a working parent several years ago. I was experiencing all the typical feelings that are so much a part of the media and cultural narrative about working while also parenting small children. I realized that if I didn’t want to quit my job and I didn’t want to give my kids away then I was going to have to change my thinking if I didn’t want to spend the next decade or more of my life being miserable. And it worked! That’s not to say I don’t have bad days (weeks, months …) but I deal with the bad days better than before and I enjoy the wonderful days (or which there are many) so much more than ever.