How I Got Radicalized

Stress Balls Are a Sign of Our Overworked Culture

They may seem cute and squishy, but really they’re a byproduct of capitalism gone awry

Luke Ottenhof
GEN
Published in
6 min readFeb 12, 2021

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Illustration: Taylor Le for GEN

Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

I don’t remember the first time I encountered a stress ball, that timeless fidget tool, but I’ll always remember the one that I found in my parents’ basement late last year. It’s sitting beside me as I type, a squishy, blue-green orb the size of a tangerine. As a tireless tchotchke-hoarder kid, these little squishies were my favorite part of any back-to-school welcome package. In high school, they were the prized take-home freebie from stuffy seminars. Even at university, when I could snag one at some campus conference’s swag table and press it between my palm and fingers, their appeal would come whipping back to me.

Even now, at 27 years old, stress balls remain an immense help for managing my workplace anxiety. Instead of idly chewing my cheek or scratching my hairline, I squeeze, first letting all my fingers together sink into the mass, then slowly giving each digit a turn. My nail cuticles, which used to be bloodied and torn on a regular basis, are as tidy as they’ve been in a long time. It’s actually become a staple piece of my work-from-home setup: laptop, mouse, water bottle, stress ball.

For a while, this new find was supremely satisfying. After sitting at a keyboard for hours, the tactile experience was exquisite. But this past December, a few days after my latest stress ball score, my brain began reframing the benefits. Why is work causing me to peel off the skin around my fingernails and why am I using a little rubber ball to stop the skin-peeling shit?

I wound up doing something I never thought I would have time or reason to do. I began to critically reinterpret my relationship to my stress ball, and stress balls in…

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Luke Ottenhof
GEN
Writer for

Luke Ottenhof (he/him) is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario, and sometimes in Toronto, Ontario.