Stressed out? So were the Victorians.

This interview with Professor Sally Shuttleworth originally appeared on Science Squared, an ERC project. Read the whole article here.  

We didn’t invent the ‘diseases of modern life’; people in Victorian England worried about anxiety and overwork, too.

A leading doctor has warned that the pace of the information age means our brains are subject to as much stress in a single month as our grandparents faced in a lifetime. His name? James Crichton Browne.

Alas, he was unavailable for interview as he died in 1938 at the ripe old age of 97.

Crichton Browne lived part of his life in the Victorian era, but his worries echo the concerns of 21stcentury commentators – as well as watercooler conversations in offices around the world. He feared that the stresses of information overload would cripple the minds of professionals; that schoolchildren were overburdened by packed curricula and exams; and that we had created a damaging environment that needed to be reimagined.

Fast-forward to today and everything has changed – except our anxiety about the diseases of modern life. We fear burnout, the information delugeaddictionoverloaded curriculumpollution and threats to our work-life balance. These worries may be well-founded but are far from new.

“It is claimed that in our current information age we suffer as never before from the stresses of overload and the speed of global networks,” says Sally Shuttleworth, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. “The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the 19thcentury.”

The uncanny similarities between Victorian-era concerns and modern anxieties is revealed by an ERC-backed project that delves into literature, science and medicine to explore parallels between reactions to ‘progress’ in the 19th and 21st centuries. The ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ study takes its title from a book published in 1876 by Benjamin Ward Richardson, an English medical reformer.

Instant information

“The conditions of work changed massively in the Victorian era,” says Shuttleworth. “Work was no longer dominated by natural daylight hours and there was a huge growth not only of factories but of office culture in industrial cities.”

Financial services and other professional employees began commuting to their offices in London and taking work home with them. Worse, the arrival of the telegram meant that stock brokers were always on. Information began to flow from Asian markets early in the morning and those who clocked off before the New York stock exchanges closed risked losing their shirt.

“Instead of waiting weeks for a ship to arrive with goods and pricing information, they were bombarded all the time,” says Shuttleworth. “Information was now communicated in an instant via telegraph. Cases of suicide among bankers were widely publicised.”

Stress was taken very seriously, she adds: “The literature shows that doctors frequently diagnosed stress and recommended that their patients take six months off to recover.”

Utopian dreams

Like many of their reforming contemporaries who helped to shape 19th century thinking on health in the industrial age, doctors like Benjamin Ward Richardson campaigned for social and medical changes to improve the quality of life.

High-minded reformers and ‘sanitarians’ dreamed of fixing modern life by creating ideal cities – cleaner, greener, healthier. “They were trying to resolve every problem that might challenge attempts to live a healthy life, from diet and work regimes through to housing and smoke pollution,” explains Shuttleworth.

Richardson created a vision of a utopian city, which he named Hygeia. It attracted attention from newspapers around the world – even spawning commercial spin-offs such as health resorts run by canny entrepreneurs.

“It is extraordinary to find that many of the things we think of as being part of the green agenda were already considered deeply by the Victorians as part of their efforts to combat the problems not only of stress and overwork, but also environmental pollution,” Shuttleworth says. “There was a strong awareness of the relationship between mental and bodily health, and social and physical environment.”

Happy 100th birthday

The sanitarians believed humans were under-achieving their true potential. Richardson was influenced by Richard Owen, an anatomist, who declared that humans should live until the age of 100. Hs reasoning was based on findings that most animals lived to around five times their age of maturity.

If people embraced the reformers’ prescription for healthy life – exercise, enjoyment and moderation in all things – it was forecast that general life expectancy could hit 100 by the year 2150, with many living to 120 or 130. This is a little optimistic by today’s forecasts, but nonetheless remarkably prescient. Average lifespans around the world have, indeed, lengthened greatly – to just over 80, for instance, in Europe. And more people are approaching 100.

“The solutions offered by the Victorians were in many ways very similar to our own lifestyle movements,” says Shuttleworth. “Virtually all the reformers insisted on the value of regular exercise, and many were vegetarian, often accompanied by a strong belief in animal rights.”

They conducted campaigns against smoking, tobacco and alcohol, and spoke out forcefully against forms of slavery in the workplace. “Particular targets were the pressures of exams on school children, and a long-hours culture in the office,” says Shuttleworth.

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