Happy Birthday: Another Year of “Toil and Labour of the Mind”

I cant fit 33 candles on a cupcakeWithout giving Mrs. Clay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion any undue credit, I think she may have been onto something when she said:

[E]ven in the quieter professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man’s looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all weather; and even the clergyman … is obliged to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of a poisonous atmosphere.

In this nearly two-hundred-year-old observation, the fictional Mrs. Clay referred to only men, but her comment would apply equally to women today. In the U.S. (where we spell “labour” without the ‘u’), just under half of all law school students are women, and the “toil and labour of the mind” of the profession into which they will enter — its demanding hours, the adversarial nature of what lawyers do, and the poisonous competitive culture in many firms — is at least as unkind to women as it is for the men. It may even be more taxing for women in light of the discriminatory practices that result in lower salaries and fewer partnerships and the societal expectation that working women will still shoulder most of the duties at home.

Conventional wisdom suggests, as Jane Austen via Mrs. Clay observed, that stress can affect physical appearance. Scientific research also suggests a relationship between chronic stress and wrinkling, greying, and other physical characteristics associated with aging, though the exact effect of stress hormones on appearance and health is difficult to discern.

For example:

  • Women in “high strain” jobs — i.e., “a demanding job that provides limited opportunity for decision-making or to use one’s creative or individual skills,” which frankly describes most lawyers below the senior partner level — have a 70% greater risk of heart attack, and both job strain and job insecurity predisposed women to having “high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight.”

  • Stress even affects DNA, reducing the length of telomeres (the caps on the ends of chromosomes), and thus increasing the risk of “cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.”

And, of course, having high work and life demands doesn’t leave much time to take care of ourselves, probably making many of us look much older than we otherwise would for our chronological ages.

Whatever we look like, though, the more concerning effect of stress is its potential impact on our quality of life and ultimately on our longevity.

Thankfully, some research suggests that our telomeres can bounce back with an adjusted lifestyle, and, obviously, there is enormous individual variability when it comes to how we handle stress, how we age, and how long we’ll live.

That’s good. I’m actually really looking forward to my 80s. As author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in July of last year on the cusp of his 80th birthday in The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

As of today, I’ve got only 47 years to go until I am “freed from these factitious urgencies.” The big question is whether economic conditions will allow retirement by that golden age.

PS. My darling daughter told me this morning: “Happy Birthday! You’re older, but you only look about eight.” She’s six!


  1. I can’t agree that longevity, of itself, is a ‘Good Thing.’ Much more important is the quality of one’s life, both physically and mentally, as one gets to and beyond retirement age. And if stress keeps you alert and active then I’ll happily embrace it and the consequences.

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes! It was a lovely day and I’m looking forward to this year. I agree that quality of life is far more important than longevity. Some stress probably keeps us alert and active, while other types of stress are damaging.

  2. Great thoughts on toil, labor, and the effects of too much. I’ve been playing with this idea a lot lately; worried about the physical effects from too much mental work / under stimulation in creativity.

    Happy birthday as all! Hope you have a fantastic day 🙂

    1. Thank you, Caitlin! I had a wonderful birthday. I am hoping that I can find ways to decrease my workload in the future, but I doubt it. It seems every new year brings new responsibilities!

  3. Very good post after a night of having “labours of the mind” all night. Architects spend many a night working on projects, and of not “working”, thinking and thinking. Much stress due to worries is common. I am not one looking forward to becoming “old” though. I don’t know what I would do with myself if there are most active things I could not do. I enjoy working too.

    1. Hi Donna! I’m trying to keep an open mind about aging, and it does seem like many people find each decade more enjoyable than the last. So, I am looking forward to growing older (and hopefully wiser!). However, I do hope that my physical abilities won’t diminish too much. Only time will tell.

  4. Stress is bad no matter the gender or age. Have you compared a picture of Obama in office his first year with his latest? He’s grayed and yes, he looks older. That tells me he takes his job seriously, and it weighs heavily on him.

    Bush, on the other hand, looked pretty much the same when he left office. I’ll let y’all draw your own conclusions. 😉

    1. Yeah, the presidents age so much in office (perhaps with an exception or two!). I thought Clinton in particular looked older at the end of his second term.

  5. Happy birthday from another birthday girl! I hope you have an amazing day and that you continue to look “8” to your daughter for years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s