I'm not sure how one measures stress. In controlled laboratory conditions, you can wire someone up and test respiration and heartbeat and eye blinks and all sorts of stuff and probably develop a stress metric that's more or less reliable. And certainly you can use the same methods to study stress-reduction techniques.
But here's a question: Is an ordinary 21st century urban dweller more stressed than, say, a hunter-gatherer on the veld? The hunter-gatherer might be, because after all he is in constant danger of starvation, death by wild animal attack and crippling parasitic diseases. On the other hand, he has the sun in the morning and the moon at night, and he doesn't have to worry about additives in coffee, septic piercings, Republican judges, declining skin elasticity and the ongoing labor negotiations involving the Writers Guild of America.
To put it another way: Are people without mortgages happier than people with mortgages?
There's also a related historical question: Were the people of Paris in 1789 happier than the people in Chicago in, say, 2005? France was in turmoil with revolution everywhere, plus the usual 18th century load of unsanitary conditions, wretched underclass and bewildering clothing. On the other hand, as anyone who's been through one can tell you, revolution is kind of fun, at least for a while.
People in Chicago were having a relatively peaceful time, but they had all the technological confusions of modern life, all the instant everything and privacy concerns, plus lake-effect snow and decaying infrastructure. Which is worse? I don't think we'll ever know, and what we'd guess depends upon who we are.
What is sure, however, is that stress needs outlets. It would be good if our lot could be improved, but it's also just good to express our frustration, even if our lot remains the same. If we can express our frustration and be part of an international art project and get a video on YouTube - that would be cool, even if everything in real life stays exactly the same.
Well, behold the international Complaints Choir movement, started by Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. (You'd think the Finns wouldn't have that much to complain about, other than polysyllabic names and harsh winters, but you'd be very, very wrong.) The idea is to gather a group of people, all of them good singers, from a specific city, and have them write (or ask for contributions from others) very specific complaints.
Then set the complaints to music, hire a keyboard person and a percussionist (optional), and get everyone to sing the song. Tell the world. It's an outstandingly cool idea. (There is a Complaintschoir.org if you're in activist mode; if you go to YouTube.com and put "complaints choir" in the search field, you'll get an hour of musical misery from around the world.)
I should also say that this movement confirms a deeply held belief of mine, which is that almost everything sounds better with a choir.
The Helsinki Complaints Choir sings out with some standard laments ("Christmas season starts earlier every year" and "Why do people never agree with me?") with some specifically Finnish complaints ("In the public sauna, they never ask if it's OK to throw water on the stones" and "we always lose to Sweden in soccer") plus other hints of pan-Scandinavian Ikea-based resentments ("When you buy furniture, all you get is a pile of boards").
The Birmingham, England, Complaints Choir features a rousing (really) chorus: "I want my money back, my job's like a cul-de-sac, and the bus is too infrequent at 6:30; why don't they pay me more, life was good before, and I am thirsty."
You might think that only large cities would be hotbeds of discontent, but you would be wrong. Gabriola Island is a small touristy enclave just offshore from Nanaimo in British Columbia. It has its own cheerful Web site ("Make yourself at home!") and a population that is not quite so cheerful, as the Gabriola Island Complaints Choir points out:
"Too many visitors using water - baths and showers all the time" and "My neighbor's heat pump is too noisy" and "Why do I always get behind a tourist when I'm late for the ferry." It too has a rousing chorus: "Why does it always rain on Sunday? Why are there so many deer? And why do all these people have to move here?"
Another complaint is "Newspaper columnists who write about Gabriola," but the group does not seem violent, and I am a long way away.
The Complaints Choir is so far a phenomenon of northern nations (Finland, German, England, Canada). If we were to start our own here, we might wrap up "the weather isn't bad here, but dear Lord the traffic" end of things. Just an idea.
The traffic's bad today, I want to go away, but the gas is much too expensive. The earth is getting hot, my brakes are almost shot, so I'll stay home and listen to the termites