How to Use Stress for Better Health and Productivity, Backed by Stanford Psychologist.


Did you have a stressful day yesterday? If not, how about today, did you deal with a lot stress?

If you’re like me, you’d probably count yourself as one of those people who experience stress on a frequent basis.

Would you like to experience more stress tomorrow?

I know you’re probably thinking that I just asked you a stupid question. Afterall, mainstream media, health experts and fitness gurus constantly tell us that stress is bad for your health, happiness and productivity.

We’re constantly looking for and trying out new strategies to reduce our great enemy called stress.

But, what if this enemy— stress—could also be an ally and a force for good in your life? What if stress could actually help boost your health, productivity and performance at your work?

Let’s dive in to discuss how you can make stress your friend for better health and productivity.

The Stress Paradox

In 2005, the World Gallup poll asked different people across 121 countries if they had experienced a great deal of stress “yesterday.”

The results from this poll were used to create a “stress index” i.e. the percent of people in any country that had stated they experienced stress. Worldwide, this average came to 33 percent.

Over a decade later, a group of researchers wanted to dig deeper into the stress index data. Specifically, they were looking to uncover the link between the stress index of a country and the wellbeing of the society i.e. life expectancy, happiness, GDP. [1]

Obviously, the researchers discovered common sense about destructive effects of stress we already know—that the countries with higher stress index had an overall lower well-being? Not so.

The researchers discovered the opposite: the higher a country’s stress index, the better it’s well-being.

In other words, the more people in a country with stressful days ‘yesterday’, the better the life expectancy, happiness and GDP of the society. This finding puzzled researchers because it contradicted the belief that stress is bad for our health.

To make sense of this, researchers looked into the relationship between stress and other emotions. [2]

Their studies showed that on stressful days, people were more likely to feel sad, worried or angry. But, a high stress index was also related to feelings of joy, love and satisfaction.

One reason for this was that the happiest people in the stress index were highly stressed but not depressed.

In contrast, the most unhappy people experienced low levels of stress but lived with higher levels of anger, shame and negative self talk.

This is the stress paradox.

Originally proposed by Stanford University psychologist Kelly Mcgonigal author of The Upside of Stress,” the stress paradox suggests that stress can be both good and bad for our well-being.

In other words, a stress-free life doesn’t guarantee better health, happiness and productivity. Likewise, a stressful life could help us achieve our life goals.

Stress and Happiness

In 2013, a survey looking into what separates people who say they live a meaningful life from others, found that stress was one of the best predictors of their happiness. [3]

The people who experienced a lot of stress also stated that they lived a meaningful life. They worried and thought about the future more than the rest of the survey group.

One reason for this could be the pursuit of goals, which creates an internal tension between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.

For example, every time I plan to write, publish and share an article I’ve written, I experience a good amount of stress that helps me to stay productive and achieve my writing goals.

Stress can also disguise itself within the same feelings of fear you experienced the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone.

The more you step outside of your comfort zone, the more stress you will experience and the better progress you will make towards your goals.

Stress can be a good indicator of how much you are challenging and pushing yourself to grow. So, how can you tap into the good side of stress?

How to Make Stress Your Friend

The way we think about stress is a crucial part of our well-being, but this step is often ignored.

We’re quick to look for solutions to reduce and avoid stress at all costs. But if stress is your enemy, how can you use it to your advantage for better health, happiness and productivity?

A study by researchers from Yale University, found that people who hold a negative perception of stress, with a focus on getting rid of stress, are more likely to experience the bad side of stress. [4]

This includes health problems and illnesses, reduced productivity, increased likelihood of depression, stress-related heart attacks and mortality.

On the flip side, the people who hold a positive or embracing view of stress are healthier, happier and more productive.

So, how can you make stress your friend and turn it into your advantage?

It’s simple. Instead of trying to reduce, avoid and get rid of stress, you can choose to embrace stress as a positive experience.

Stress studies have shown that a positive mindset towards stress could release higher levels of DHEA (stress hormone) which could make it easier to learn, improve your performance and get more things done. [5]

Here are three science-backed ways to develop this positive mindset for good stress:

  1. Embrace the experience of stress completely without resistance and reinforce past positive experiences including stress.

  2. Define your values and how your goals will help you to express these values. For example, if you have a job interview, you could ask yourself this: why do I care so much about getting this job, and how would it help me to express my values?  

  3. Declutter your environment to reduce bad stress and give room for good stress.

A Stressful Life Is a Meaningful Life

So, let me ask you the question I asked at the start again: would you like to experience more stress tomorrow?

Maybe after reading this article, your beliefs about stress have changed, maybe not. Either way, the key takeaway is that stress is not your enemy. Stress could be your friend to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Stress will show you how much you challenge yourself, what you deeply care about and  how you can grow.

The next time you experience stress, don’t try to avoid or reduce it. Embrace and use it to your advantage—for a meaningful life.


  1. Ng, Weiting; Diener, Ed; Aurora, Raksha; Harter, James (2009). “Affluence, Feelings of Stress, and Well-Being.”
  2. Louis Tay, Ed Diener, Fritz Drasgow (2010). “Multilevel Mixed-Measurement IRT Analysis: An Explication and Application to Self-Reported Emotions Across the World.”
  3. Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky (2013). “Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.”
  4. Crum, Salovey, & Achor (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716-733.
  5. Crum et al 2015 Columbia University.
  6. Thank you to Kelly McGonigal for inspiring the ideas in the article.