This year’s broiling summer made us Brits climate-change enthusiasts and environmental doom-mongers in quick succession. First came delight at the disappearance of the traditional rhythms of the English summer. Barbecues no longer sputtered out with the advent of a tensely awaited shower. Sogginess, the traditional texture of the British family trying to enjoy itself outdoors, dried out. Tedium followed, as the parks, which at the start of the season had seemed so welcoming, began to resemble a desolate dustbowl from “The Grapes of Wrath”. And then came despair. It wasn’t the days that were so bad. Most offices have serviceable air-conditioning. But the nights were stagnant, breezeless hellscapes as British homes, whose cavity walls had been obediently filled with mineral fibre and formaldehyde foam to retain every last whisper of heat during the winter, turned into bakeries. Sleep evaporated along with everything else and the simplest tasks became cryptic. I stood in front of my front door flummoxed when faced with two locks that need opening with different keys. Anxiety levels rose and tempers frayed.
In short, it was the perfect time to try out kit designed to reduce stress. Pip is a stress-management device that responds to the electric conductivity of the skin. Egg-shaped, with two gold-plated sensors, it looks like the kind of magic totem that would see a posse of hobbits turn up on your doorstep with a thieving glint in their eyes. Part of Pip’s usefulness is measuring stress as you pinch the device for a couple of minutes between the thumb and forefinger. In a brief span of time, I managed to experience 40 “relaxing events” and 24 “stress events”, which makes my life sound far more enjoyable and eventful than it actually is. There were also 21 “steady events”. I’m not really sure what these can have been beyond a flurry of micro-naps so brief they entirely passed me by.
Pip works on much of the same principles as the polygraph, a dubious technology whose results are often complicated by the fact that merely undergoing a lie-detection test often induces exactly the kind of anxiety that the test is supposed to measure. Concentrate your mind on not being stressed and your fingers immediately start sweating, you start listening out for thuds of your heartbeat and, somewhere deep inside your cranium, your brain feels like it’s furrowing itself.
But Pip doesn’t merely measure stress; connected to your phone or tablet, it actively tries to inculcate calmness through a series of exercises and games. You can meditate within soundscapes designed to ignite feelings of longing in harassed urbanites: the sussuration of the breeze in the barley, the merry arpeggios of a tinkling brook, waves crashing against shores. (I don’t really understand the appeal of the last of these: beaches are angst-strewn places populated with parents in a constant battle to ensure that their offspring don’t drown or eat sand or turn to crackling in the sun or down a bottle of factor 30.)
The problem with this aural wallpapering is that it merely serves to emphasise the unnatural rhythms of our own lives. What we really need is a suite of meditative practices that incorporates train-delay announcements, WhatsApp notifications and the judder of perpetual roadworks.
Games are another way that Pip wants to tranquillise you. Stay steady and you can melt away a wintry landscape and welcome in the spring. You can race dragons as long as you remain zen and explore the universe in the guise of a chillaxing spaceman. Underlying these seems to be an anxiety about techniques of stress-relief. Deliberative relaxing can seem embarrassingly passive – a retreat from life and an evacuation of the mind. How much more purposeful it becomes if your regular breath and stilled thoughts can propel a dragon across a screen.
The truth that few people are willing to admit is that we actually enjoy being stressed. It breaks us out of the monotony of routine and makes us feel alive. More than any meditation, it keeps us in the moment as we bustle with activity without succumbing to panic. The appeal of the many stress-relieving apps and devices is that they promise the benefits of mindfulness without encouraging you to become a full-time lama. All you need, Pip promises, is a few mind-cleansing minutes a day. Which leaves an awful lot of time to get on with the proper work of being stressed.