With Dr. Hans Selye

June 14 1976


With Dr. Hans Selye

June 14 1976


With Dr. Hans Selye

In 1974 Hans Selye, director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of Montreal, wrote a book called Stress Without Distress in which he attempted to translate his scientific knowledge about stress into a code of human behavior. With the pace of North American life accelerating to the extent that heart disease is nearly epidemic, his timing couldn’t have been better. The book has been translated into a dozen languages and sold all over the world. Even before he wrote the book, however, Selye was considered one of the world’s leading experts in the field. Born in Austria, he has doctoral degrees in science and philosophy, as well as medicine, and has spent a lifetime studying the physiological mechanisms of stress. He has published more than 1,100 scientific papers relating to his work and has received 16 honorary degrees and innumerable awards in recognition. Dr. Selye was interviewed recently by Fraser Kelly, who asked him about his assertion that stress can be used as a positive force for personal achievement and happiness.

Maclean’s: You have been writing about stress for decades, but suddenly there seems to be an enormous upsurge, at least in North America, in interest. Why is that?

Selye: Actually it is not as sudden as most people think. I wrote the first paper on stress in 1936. But with the general public the interest started when I became aware of the fact that one could apply what I had learned about cellular and tissue reactions to stress into behavioral terms. Not everyone can understand chemical formulas, but everyone can understand behavior. Maclean’s: I think the public confuses the term stress with nervous tension, and I would like you to explain the difference. Selye: In man, with his highly developed nervous system, his powers of logic and ability to analyze himself, nervous stress is the most common form of stress. We don't very often suffer from extreme hunger in a civilized country, we don't very often suffer from infection, so nervous stress is very important. Physical stress is quite different and may have no nervous manifestations. For example, anesthesia, when you go into the deepest sleep possible so that one can make an operation on you, is a stress and produces the same biochemical manifestations, the same nervous and hormonal changes, as you would have when you enjoy something. But nervous stress is completely eliminated during anesthesia. Maclean’s: How does a person order his

life in such a wav as to minimize stress? Selye: You can have too much stress and too little stress. We call that overstress and understress—technically hyperstress and hypostress. Now overstress is what we usually suffer from, because very rarely are we in lack of stress, although boredom can count as such and so can sensory deprivation. Sensory deprivation is a condition in which any feeling of anything is eliminated. Usually they put you in a dark room

DOING GOOD THINGS FOR OTHERS GIVES YOU POWER. IT’S ALTRUISM FOR YOUR OWN GOOD where it’s never cold or hot, and you are put in a very cushioned bed, and there is no noise. There is absolutely nothing happening. It is one of the most horrible experiences. It is like solitary confinement. I mean in solitary confinement a prisoner can’t talk to anybody, he’s all alone by himself, and he can’t stand it very long. You get hallucinations, you literally go crazy from it.

Maclean’s: So we need some stress. The question is how much, and how do we order our lives to get the right amount?

Selye: My code differs from any other ethic or any other code of behavior because it is not very prescriptive. It is descriptive. You see, the laws of God. whatever your religion, the laws of your king, of

your president, of your political party, of your country, they are all prescriptive— they tell you you must do that, you must not do that. The laws of nature, which are the basis of my code, are not prescriptive. N ature does not wish, nature does. The law of gravity is not a prescriptive law. If I take an object and it falls to the ground, it isn’t because the physicist who first described this phenomenon has such tremendous power that he can force it to do so, or that anybody wants it to do so; it just happens. Now there are laws like this in nature that apply to us, you and me, because we are part of nature. And you can’t disobey them. If, for example, we are trying to do our best by this conversation, we are under a certain amount of stress. Once we are under stress, whether it’s pleasurable or displeasurable stress, certain things happen. For example, right now you and I are secreting more adrenalin than if we were just sleeping. We are also secreting much more of those hormones of the adrenal cortex, one of which is cortisone. So stress is always there, it’s associated with every activity we perform.

Maclean’s: You have said that our human machine has only a certain amount of capital—energy—and that we can either squander that capital or use it wisely. How does one use it wisely.

Selye: I can summarize my code for you in three points. The first law—I don’t believe it is a law, it’s just a fact—is do your own thing. The hippies are right, I think. Many people don’t do their own thing. Rather, they do too much or too little—either too much because it's expected of them by the society, their neighbors, their priests, their teachers . . .

Maclean’s: Or bosses?

Selye: Yes, bosses tell them that they have to work at this rate and it just isn’t their rate. A turtle goes slowly, a racehorse goes fast, and if you force a racehorse never to run faster than the turtle, you kill it, just as you kill a turtle if you force it to run as fast as a racehorse.

Maclean’s: What you’re saying is that we should be able to determine our own stress levels, but I think for most people that is very difficult.

Selye: Very. But unfortunately that’s where my competence stops. Since I admit from the beginning that you should do your own thing, and you know yourself "best, you are your own best doctor. It’s only that most people act without knowing what the facts are. We act by prejudice, by social influence, by custom, by tradition, and never come to think of it. The fact that your father happened to be one of the most famous theoretical physicists does not obligate you to do theoretical physics if that is not your thing. And if you want to be a beachcomber, I have no objection, although I object to the kids who become beachcombers when it isn’t actually what they want, when they just didn’t give it enough thought or have enough information and guidance. The dropouts are sometimes the most original kids who have enough independence to think, “Do I really want to know this?” And I think that wars and revolutions, turning to drugs, to alcohol and all sorts of abuses, are due to the fact that man has a certain amount of energy for adaptation which has to find an outlet, and if you don’t give it an outlet in a constructive way it revolts. You do your own thing, at your own speed and in the direction you really favor. Montaigne summed it up: “No wind blows in favor of the ship that has no port of destination.” Maclean’s: What is point number two? Selye: Point two sounds like a paradox. It is: altruistic egoism. I think that nature is egoistic. You can’t help it. Personally I


have been very much traumatized by the fact that I knew I was an egoist and I felt very guilty about being one. I was brought up in Austro-Hungary in a school led by the Benedictine fathers, and being very much under their influence I believed that it was terribly sinful to be an egoist. But I couldn’t help it. I suffered from that guilt until quite recently. Selfishness is natural. A big fish must eat little fish because otherwise he dies. You can’t blame him for it. He is not a sinner. It is a selfish thing to eat little fish, but what’s he to do about it? Our national animal, the beaver, is a capitalist. He hoards for his own good. He hoards building blocks for his dam, not for somebody else’s, and I think that this hoarding instinct—for yourself, not for somebody else—is widespread in nature. So egoism and capitalism are natural things. But people usually talk as if being an egoist means being an absolute egoist, a vicious egoist. I condemn absolute egoism as much as anybody else. The hoodlum who kills a poor old widow for two dollars and fifty cents is terrible, and not only on moral grounds. I am not here to moralize on anything; I am giving you natural laws. Killing the widow is not efficient, because the hoodlum worries that he will be found out and that’s no kind of life—and eventually he makes so many enemies that somebody gets him for it out of hate. Absolute egoism is therefore not acceptable to me. Absolute altruism is not acceptable, either, because

it is not natural. I cannot expect you to spend all your energy looking after me. It is just not natural.

Maclean’s: I think you say at some point in your book that it is not natural for me to love my neighbor more than myself My first love has to be myself Is that not an accurate description of what you mean?

Selye: Well, it is in a way. It isn’t that you shouldn’t love your neighbor as thyself but through a special kind of technique, so to speak. I have overcome my own difficulties—and, apparently through the books and through lectures and television, that of many others—by showing that we are not really sinners if we look after ourselves as long as our interest is also to help others. You see, I got no satisfaction out of admitting my sins and beating my chest and saying I was a horrible sinner, because first of all I didn’t feel like a sinner and, secondly, if I made mistakes, which I did very often and knew I did, I liked to correct them, not just to admit to them. Admitting to them didn’t give me any satisfaction unless I could do something about it. If you are a realist you should admit that doing good things for others gives you power, that you are really an altruist for your own good. Who will blame you for desperately wanting to work for your own interest and hoard capital for yourself if that capital is other people’s love?

Maclean’s: Which brings us to your third point.

Selye: My third point is really a summary of the first and second points: Earn thy neighbor’s love. 1 took it right out of the Bible. Instead of love thy neighbor as thyself, which is a command, and you cannot love on command, all you need to do is change one word, the first. Love thy neighbors as thyself should be changed to earn thy neighbors’ love. Then you do it for your own good, you hoard your own capital, and who will blame you for wanting to help him?

Maclean’s: You talk about people pollution being one of the harmful stressful sources right now. What do you mean by that? Selye: Well, you see, more and more our society tends to collect in large aggregates because it has many advantages, but if there are just too many people around you never have any privacy. That is stressful, too. You have to choose your surroundings. For example, in running this institute it is just as important to me to have pleasant, smiling people who are encouraging as to have efficient ones. Naturally, a certain level of efficiency is indispensable, but if somebody always goes around like a sourpuss it just bothers me too much. So I think one should be aware that people can pollute, too.

Maclean’s: You have described work as a basic biological need of man. What evidence do you have of that?

Selye: I like to explain behavior in terms of natural laws, and I think everybody knows without being a physician that if you don’t use a muscle it becomes weak and flabby. That is why you have to exercise. If you develop it and you work with it, then it becomes strong. I think that work is a biological necessity. If you don’t use your brain, it won’t develop. I think that people should realize that less work and more leisure is no solution. As Bernard Shaw said, “Labor is doing what we must; leisure is doing what we like.”

Maclean’s: And yet the trend seems to be toward less work. Indeed, people are working very hard to get out of work, aren’t they? Selye: Yes, well I will tell you frankly— and I don’t mind if people know it—I never did a piece of work in all my life. I was actively engaged in academic work, teaching and research, between the ages of 20 and 69, where I am now. But I never considered what I am doing as work. It is a matter of mind. It is not what happens to you that counts, but the way you take it. You see, if you meet, let us say, an allergen, a pollen of a hay fever producing plant, and you are notsensitive to it, it doesn’t botheryou. It is not what happens, but the way you take it. Well, I have selected for myself a port of destination in life, an objective which I like and which for me is play.

Maclean’s: That is a luxury that most people don ’/ have. A great many people are almost forced by economic necessity to do work they think is unpleasant in order to survive. How do they cope with these negative stresses?

Selye: Governments and teaching institu-

tions could help by teaching people to find what I call play professions. Someone will say, “It is all right for you because you are a scientist, you can consider your work as play if you like,” and the same would be true of an artist, or a musician. But some people like to be, for example, garbage collectors. I know our garbage collector likes hisjob. because I get to talk to him. I like to talk to people about their work, in order to see how generalizable my theories are. Now I wouldn’t like to be a garbage collector, and very few people would like to be, let us say, executioners, but we shouldn’t draw conclusions from a very few exceptional professions which have to be done by somebody but which are unpleasant. Most people like something.

Maclean’s: It seems to me that boredom would be a major cause of stress in a society that forsook work for more and more leisure.


Selye: Boredom is the punishment of those who haven’t thought this out clearly, who want less work and more leisure and then don’t know what to do with the leisure when they get it. So again I think specialists, behaviorists, governments and so on should help people find occupations which for them are agreeable and with which they can avoid boredom. Boredom is a terribly stressful thing.

Maclean’s: What about exercise or meditation as antidotes to harmful stress?

Selye: Well, you see, 1 think we have to separate exercise from meditation. Despite my age, I exercise whenever it is possible. Usually at five o’clock in the morning. I use a bicycle and I have a little swimming pool in my basement. I do as

much exercise as is compatible with my needs and my capacities. It is invigorating for the body to be used. We spoke about the necessity of work as a biological need of man. Exercise is another such necessity.

I wouldn't advise somebody to exercise if he is physically crippled or if it hurts him. Such a person has to use another type of therapy. A psychological type of treatment, let us say.

Maclean’s: But you do see some value for some people in meditation, then?

Selye: Undoubtedly, and not only when they are experiencing negative stress. Too much ecstasy and pleasure, you can’t stand that either. It is again overstress. That is why I distinguished between understress and overstress. Meditation is no good to somebody who is already in understress because it is understress.

Maclean’s: So perhaps you need to meditate as much after a kiss as you do after driving down an expressway in your car?

Selye: Well, I have not subjected this to practical personal experience as yet, but it is quite possible.

Maclean’s: Someone told'me that you sum up a good deal of your work in two lines. Tell me about that.

Selye: My first book for the layman was called The Stress Of Life, and it was published in New York by McGraw-Hill. I got down on about 300 pages 30 years of research, and I was very proud that it was quite easy to understand and so short. The editor looked it over and he said, “This is fine, but it has two flaws: firstly it is too technical, and secondly it is too long.” So I said, “Well perhaps it isn’t worth publishing.” “No,” he said, “this is definitely what we have to publish, but you have to make a summary which people then will read. Nobody will read the book, but they will read the summary. We have to publish the book, because if your peers don’t have the factual material on which to accept it nobody will listen to you.” So I said, “All right, I am going to try.” I wrote a 10-page summary. I was very proud of myself. I went to the editor, who looked it over and said. “Well doctor, this is a little better.” I said: “I can’t do it in less than 10 pages.” But he said I should try, that we would publish the 10 pages, too, but that we should have a summary of the summary. So I said, “Well, I won’t be beaten.” I came back to Montreal and I put it all in two lines. Some benevolent people called it a poem, but there again it had two flaws: it didn’t rhyme and it didn’t scan very well. But the two lines do sum it all up—the fact that you have to have an aim in life, that it has to be an aim that you are made for, that you can obtain, and that there is no point in fighting about things that you can’t accomplish. Since we usually speak French, I wrote it first in French, and it sounds perhaps a little better in the original language-translations never come out quite as well. In English it is: Fight for your highest attainable aim, but never put up a resistance in vain.