General systems theory provides a critical perspective that is missing from contemporary stress dogma, offers some insights into why contemporary society seems to be increasingly unable to cope with reality, and suggests functional adaptability strategies that foster growth and wellness. 

Evaluating stress through a systems perspective

From a systems perspective, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1972) provided an insight that is contrary to the stress-is-a-killer-disease dogma. In short: “stress… creates higher life” (p. 192). If organisms simply return to homeostatic equilibrium after being disturbed by external forces, life would have never evolved beyond amoebas. “Life is not a comfortable settling down in pre-ordained groves of being; at its best, [life] is… inexorably driven towards a higher form of existence” (p. 192).

Bertalanffy's view evokes Selye’s (1956) declaration about the secret of happiness as a successful adaptation to changing conditions. In other words, happiness does not come from changing the environment to eliminate stress but by successfully adapting to reality. The consequences of failing to adapt are “disease and unhappiness” (p. VII). Further, successfully reaching a stress-free state means the organism achieves death; a point people may want to keep in mind when they hear pitches about products and programs that will reduce or eliminate stress.

The affliction of affluence

Bertalanffy (1972) argued that rising affluence in American society had created an “unprecedented number of mentally ill” who live meaningless lives. Rather than being a stepping-stone toward higher-order needs and self-transformation, affluence enables a society of neurotic whiners who seem incapable of handling reality.

Bertalanffy said that the organismic perspectives were replacing the “robot psychology” of behaviorist philosophy. Goldstein’s organismic theory (Hall & Lindzey, 1959), the humanist framework proposed by Maslow, Rogers, and May (Maslow, 1968), and Gestalt psychology were changing perspectives from that of the human as a passive robot or a load-bearing structure to that of an “an active personality system” that dynamically changes and grows through interaction with self and environment (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 207).

Bertalanffy argued that the systems perspective represented by organismic psychology would provide a “more adequate perceptual framework” than mechanical perspectives for understanding human behavior and promoting human wellness. This is because the systems perspective allows an understanding of the interacting causes affecting the system, rather than isolating symptoms while allowing the disease to fester. For example, cognition is a function of the brain; however, physiology, perceptions, experience, context, motivation, and other factors might impair cognition.

Understanding that disturbances to the system can cause mental dysfunction can lead to therapies that treat the patient, not the symptom. Applied to stress, this implies that dealing with stress is not a matter of merely reducing or eliminating stressors, but helping the system to interact with and handle stressors on psychological and physiological levels.

Lack of stress is harmful to human systems

Another valuable insight gained from systems thinking is that the human is an active being that grows and thrives by solving problems (Lambert, 2008), not by avoiding them. Contemporary stress tactics tend to consider environmental factors as annoyances and threats that need fixing, reduced, or eliminated so that the human can achieve a stress-free state before the stressor causes the system irreparable damage.

The systems theory perspective exposes that efforts to reduce or eliminate stress are not only wrong; they may also be exacerbating the problem. Rather than seeing stress as a negative force, systems theory reinvigorates the ancient wisdom by seeing stress as a vital catalyst for growth and survival for individuals, organizations, and societies.

Systems theory recognizes that the lack of stress, a state of equilibrium, means death to a biological system. Excessive and prolonged stress can harm an organism; however, system tension is necessary for the system to grow and develop. Removing stress from a human system is “apt to produce insufferable anxiety, hallucinations, and other psychosis-like symptoms” in individuals and societies (Bertalanffy, 1972).

Fritjof Capra (1996) applied systems thinking to the earth system, saying that times of extreme stress on the environment serve as catalysts for the evolution of the planet and its interacting biological and physiological components. For example, a meteor may have wiped out the dinosaurs, but catalyzed an explosion of animal and plant species; creating an environment conducive to human existence.

A missing purpose

What systems theory seems to leave out, however, is any sense of purpose to development. For example, Capra (1996) said that patterns emerge from development, but no underlying purpose exists for people, planet, and cosmos. Humanists and religions alike seem to counter this perspective, seeing the human as a holistic, dynamic, purposive being with, as Abraham Maslow (1968) stated, “godlike” potential.

Maslow (1987) asserted that this potential fuels an almost universal desire to grow toward potential; however, most people choose not to grow because growth is hard—stressful. People simply do not want stress in their lives and do whatever they can to avoid what they perceive as stress. Believing stress is a disease that will kill them (Oz, 2009) either provides people with an excuse to do nothing or inflicts anxiety that everyday stressors are serious threats. Also, removing purpose from the development process may exacerbate psychological problems because it may diminish human hopes, aspirations, and motivations.

Like Bertalanffy, Maslow (1965) observed that the more affluent humans become, the less they seem able to handle even the simple realities of life. For example, despite living in one of the most affluent nations in history, the United States has fostered a population of people who are decreasingly able to cope; collectively whining about how life should be easy while failing to appreciate and build on the blessings at hand. Maslow called this “Grumble Theory,” which asserts that the more people have, the louder they complain about what they don't have, and the more one need or complaint is satisfied, the more justified they will feel in complaining and voicing dissatisfaction.

Noble truth and neuroticism

Supporting the systems theory assertions that stress is a vital component in the development and survival of a system, Scott Peck (1978) introduced to Western audiences the first noble truth of Buddhism as an initial step toward psychological wellness. Peck asserted that once people accept that life is difficult, they can stop whining about obstacles and start recognizing—and creating—growth opportunities. However, the more people complain about how life should be different to accommodate their sensibilities, the more difficult life can become. Complaining about, rather than dealing with, reality increases anxiety to the point of neurosis—which Jung (1973) called "a substitute for legitimate suffering."

In fairness, when individuals experience stress, the focus of physical and mental processes causes myopia that absorbs the individual into the immediate trial. Current and historical wars, holocausts, coercive dictatorships, disability, abuse, poverty, being part of the food chain… legitimate suffering seems to be blocked from the mind during neurotic struggles with everyday stressors. Many Americans who travel to other countries, visit blighted areas of their own country, or who serve on the battlefield will witness legitimate suffering. The unfortunate who live through abuse, war, poverty, concentration camps, and other heinous events experience legitimate suffering. However, in assessing the typical “suffering” in American society, Bertalanffy seemed to join Peck, Maslow, and Jung in passing a diagnosis of "neurotic."

Some caveats. First, this mental dysfunction is not unique to American society; it is a common affliction of affluent cultures. Also, many affluent people successfully maintain wellness and raise functional children in affluent environments. However, rising affluence does seem to correlate directly with decreasing resilience for many; what should be a stepping-stone seems to be a crutch for some people and societies.

Brains hard-wired for hard work

A prior section emphasized how brain research is showing that the way people interpret and respond to experience can trigger chronic stress reactions that harm the system (Aldwin & Revenson, 1987; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008; Norden, 2007). Other emerging brain research is providing additional insights into the importance of stress for supporting wellness and productivity in human systems and can help identify a cause of the growing incapacity to cope with reality from an affluent state.

While modern science is treating rising depression rates with pills for adults, children, and even pets, Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert (2008) said that “research has yet to find convincing evidence” (p. 31) that the pills are treating the cause of depression. If Lambert is correct, general system theory might help psychologists to understand that treating symptoms with pills may not only allow the disease to fester but may also exacerbate the problem. The cure for mental dysfunction may be more complicated than popping pills.

Echoing Bertalanffy, Maslow, and thousands of years of religion and philosophy, brain research is showing that the more comfortable life is, the more depressed people become. Lambert said, “Our cushy, digitally-driven, contemporary lifestyles… may be at the root of the soaring rates of depression” (p. 32). The human brain appears to be hardwired to derive satisfaction from meaningful action that comes from effectively managing complex and challenging tasks.

The brain’s innate “effort-driven-rewards” process is an evolutionary tool that gave humans satisfaction in purposeful activities that fostered adaptability and survival, and that builds resilience against emotional disorders. The lifestyles of modern humans have significantly changed, but humans have “retained the innate need for achieving effort-driven rewards. The more humans fire the effort-driven-rewards system, “the greater the sense of well-being” (p. 34).

For example, an individual may gain more satisfaction from playing a soccer game than playing a video game, hunting and cooking a meal may provide more satisfaction than picking up lunch at the McDonald’s drive-thru, sharing stories with friends around a campfire may be more rewarding than exchanging text messages.

Stepping-stones and roadblocks

As Bertalanffy (1969) argued, contemporary affluent society may be suffering from rising mental dysfunction, increasingly losing individual and collective capacity to cope with reality. Meanwhile, contemporary stress dogma exacerbates problems by getting people stressed about stress may learn something from systems theory.

Systems theory shows how the dynamically interacting factors that contribute to rising affluence tend to decrease human capacity to cope as individuals and society move further from the values and practices that fueled developing affluence. This does not mean that affluence is a bad thing. What people do with affluence makes it good or bad. In other words, it is not money that is the root of evil; it is the love of money over all other things that is evil.

Humans are not pawns who simply react to environmental factors; they are dynamic organisms and purposeful beings with the potential to transcend the self and to benefit self and others by using affluence as a stepping-stone and not a roadblock. Removing the purpose and values upon which humans attain affluence, and building the expectation that reality should be something that it is not can contribute to growing anxiety and mental dysfunction in individuals and society.