THE BLOG
07/30/2012 08:27 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

All Shook Up: 11 Cheers for Stress

In 2004 leaders in Monza, Italy decided that goldfish were living in too frantic a world. Those poor fish swimming in round bowls keep rushing past each other.

"A fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality...and suffers because of this," said a high official. So the City Council passed a law requiring all goldfish to be placed in rectangular tanks. It would cut down their stress and give them a slower, less competitive frame of reference. This from Monza, a city best known for hosting the Formula 1 Grand Prix race, where Ferraris whip past McLarens at 200 miles per hour!

Modern societies have become too protective, especially of goldfish and children. A kid reaches for a glass of whole milk, and her mother rushes to stop her. It could pump up her cholesterol. Put down that lollipop or you'll get diabetes in 40 years!

Once I made the mistake of bringing a few six-packs of yogurt to my daughter's end-of-school party. I didn't notice that the yogurt used aspartame as a sweetener. You'd think I was Dr. Jekyll trying to pour an evil potion down their throats. We might as well wrap ourselves in foam rubber and hire food testers from the CIA.

Were Americans always so jittery? When I was a kid, we played in a sandbox. I don't know where the sand came from, but I doubt my parents lugged bags of sterilized sand from Toys R Us. Ironically, some doctors now think that peanut allergies may be traced to kids not ingesting enough germs. So eat dirt, little kiddie!

Good luck trying to erase stress from your life. There is no escape route even if one withdraws from contact with other people. Do you think hermits are happy? We cannot find happiness by simply avoiding anxiety and stress. We feel greater exhilaration from mastering our anxiety than steering clear of it: The stay-at-home who conquers the fear of flying; the tongue-tied best man who attends Toastmasters and finally clinks a glass to salute the groom; the nail-biting groom who hugs his new bride; the student plagued with "math-phobia," who finally understands how to follow the FOIL rubric in algebra; the laid-off worker who gets the courage to start up his own business.

We feel exhilaration in facing up to the twists of life. We see it even in children. Why do kids like to be tossed in the air or whirled overhead like the Scottish hammer throw at the Highland games? When a child is tossed or swung in the air, his heart races, his pulse quickens, and he feels some fear - but the greater thrill is defeating that fear. Watch a one-year old smile (and drool) while taking those first steps. The smile bespeaks self-gratification - he is proud of himself -- but it is enhanced by the risk of falling on his bottom (or crashing into a coffee table).

Unfortunately, as adults we are often discouraged from going beyond baby steps. We even talk ourselves out of taking prudent risks. Why bother studying for that GRE test to get into grad school? We might flunk. Why bother asking the pretty woman out on a date? She might turn us down. Why bother asking the boss for a raise? He might laugh. These are all stressful situations. But we are seldom made happier if we shrink from them.

In fact, increasingly science is showing us that stress can make us healthier, wealthier and wiser. Now, I'm not talking about the stress of an IRS audit or a colonoscopy without anesthesia. But I am talking about the everyday stress that typifies our lives.

Here are 11 cheers for stress:

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