Telomeres have been proposed as a biomarker that integrates the impacts of different kinds of stress and adversity into a common currency. There has as yet been no overall comparison of how different classes of exposure associate with telomeres. We present a meta-analysis of the literature relating telomere measures to stresses and adversities in humans. The analysed dataset contained 543 associations from 138 studies involving 402 116 people. Overall, there was a weak association between telomere variables and exposures (greater adversity, shorter telomeres: r = -0.15, 95% CI -0.18 to -0.11). This was not driven by any one type of exposure, because significant associations were found separately for physical diseases, environmental hazards, nutrition, psychiatric illness, smoking, physical activity, psychosocial and socioeconomic exposures. Methodological features of the studies did not explain any substantial proportion of the heterogeneity in association strength. There was, however, evidence consistent with publication bias, with unexpectedly strong negative associations reported by studies with small samples. Restricting analysis to sample sizes greater than 100 attenuated the overall association substantially (r = -0.09, 95% CI -0.13 to -0.05). Most studies were underpowered to detect the typical association magnitude. The literature is dominated by cross-sectional and correlational studies which makes causal interpretation problematic.