A year ago I had the privilege to work with a government group in Bahrain on issues of happiness and well-being. It rained every day.
Yet everyone I met commented how beautiful it was.
At first, I thought they were being facetious. In the US, most people complain about rainy days. But this was different. When they spoke, there was no cynicism in their eyes. There was no complaint in their shoulders or their arms. They were genuinely tickled that it was raining. When it only rains nine days a year, those days are pretty special. They are something to celebrate.Once upon a time before I was so busy and professional and wearing suits, I too loved the rain. I walked to school without an umbrella, head thrown back, and let the universe soak me. As a young father I would drag my feet through the puddles with my four year old son as he collected the earth worms that had come out and put them in his pockets to protect them from the birds. The rain presented opportunities for awe. In was an invitation to rainbows and freshness and majesty. Those opportunities are still there, all around us, as they have always been since the beginning. And yet we miss them.
We are just so busy.
We have been taught that we can have whatever we want, be whatever we want, as long as we work hard enough. And so we work. And yet this neighbor has a bigger house, that one a better title, and the one around the corner vacations in more fabulous venues. So we work and are less satisfied.Our children are working too. As loving parents, we want the very best for them. We want to give them every opportunity we can. There is just so much to offer, so much that would be good for them to experience and enjoy. We fill their lives with soccer practice and piano and Spanish lessons and art classes and summer camp. We help them build water rockets for the science fair and take them to math tutors so they don’t fall behind the Chinese.
Individually, these are all good things. In studies, children who are engaged and active are happier than those who dawdle their time away at the mall, or who wrap their heads around a video screen. We would feel like failures and neglectful parents if we didn’t do for our children everything we could. Yet by giving them everything, there is something we are missing. We are losing something essential, something vital to our health, happiness, and well-being.
What is the cost?
CBS news reports that each week more Americans take antidepressants than go to the movies. Rates of depression and anxiety among young people have been rising for over fifty years. Today five to eight times more high school and college students meet the criteria for major depression or anxiety disorders than half a century ago.Even if we are not the 1 in 10 experiencing clinical levels of depression, all of this running around, striving, and strain has us stretched thin and stressed out. Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky points out that stress is a normal, life-saving strategy when it consists of “three minutes of screaming terror on the savannah” when fleeing a predator. After that either the stress response is over or we are. During those three minutes, the body focuses all its energies to responding to the immediate threat. It releases stress hormones to raise the heart rate and blood pressure to pump the blood where it is needed. Stress also turns off those functions that are not needed in that moment of crisis, such as digestion, growth, and reproduction.
Yet when we experience pressing deadlines at work, when we stress over the economy, a screaming baboon of a boss, or how to get our daughter from volleyball to voice lessons while our son is at soccer across town, our bodies secrete exactly the same hormones they would if lions were chasing us across the savanna. This stress response may be on all day.
By not being able to shut off this adaptive and effective defense, stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and in our lives. It increases the onset of diabetes and high blood pressure. It sets us up for gastrointestinal disorders and adversely affects the way fat is distributed in our bodies. Stress diminishes brain cells and measurably accelerates the aging of our chromosomes.Plus with all this frantic running around, we are not having fun. It is not the busyness that is killing us. It is OK to be active and engaged. But by rushing to squeeze in everything, so often we squeeze out the joy. If in our mad rush we don’t get the kids to swim lessons on time, we torment ourselves. It is this impatience that is the source of the stress.
We need to slow down.
Slowing down re-energizes us and allows us to nurture ourselves so that we can enjoy what we are doing in the moment we are doing it. It allows us to connect with people, rather than just check in. It opens us to awe and wonder, and it lets us play and discover the beauty that exists all around us. By being more deliberate we can better evaluate what things connect most directly with our values. By so doing, slowing down gives us the consciousness and mettle to say “no” to things that might be really good, and that we really want to do, but that keep us from our most essential purpose.
But how? If you are a solution-oriented problem solver, someone who tackles every challenge head on, the real challenge is in not tackling. How do you dial back or let your foot off the pedal? In survival literature, an essential aspect to withstanding tragedies, accidents, and natural disasters is knowing when not to act, when to be actively passive. We must avoid the urge to do something simply because doing feels productive. How do we, in the midst of chaos, maintain our calm, enjoy the ride, and see what possibilities present themselves?The great promise of technology is to make things easier for us. Ask yourself, what things do you consciously do to make life harder? What rituals have you established to force yourself to slow down?
Devout Muslims stop their world five times a day. They step out of business meetings. Restaurants close. City buses stop. All so the businessmen, cooks, and bus drivers can kneel upon the ground and shift their focus to something bigger than themselves.
For others, meditation has remarkable benefits. Years of research have demonstrated that the mindfulness achieved from meditation increases happiness, effectiveness, and our ability to connect. When we are mindful we become less judgmental, our memory and attention improve, and rates of burnout decrease. The literature even suggests that meditation may allow us to live longer.
Meditation is not the only pathway to mindfulness. In her work, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer finds that we can enjoy many of the same benefits by simply becoming more aware and adopting processes of noticing new things.
One way might be through poetry.
Poetry forces us to look at familiar things in new ways. Zagajewski forever changed the way I see sunsets and life by pointing out that
Sometimes the sun’s coin dims
and life shrinks so small
that you could tuck it
in the blue gloves of the Gypsy. ~ Adam Zagajewski
Awareness can be cultivated through other arts as well. Artist Ali Sobel-Read constantly scans the near horizon for old bits of tires, plastic netting, and other garbage in order to incorporate their surprising, beautiful found-patterns into her art. For others, slowing down might consist of working in the garden. To plant a seed and nurture it to bloom and to feel the damp soil between our fingers gets us in touch with the earth’s eternal rhythm.Savor an onion.
Every time we take a bite or prepare a meal, we have a chance to savor and slow down. Take something as simple as an onion, “clear as a planet/and destined/to shine.” Every one of our five senses is wholly engaged in cooking this “luminous flask.” Feel the hard coolness in your palm, the texture as you cut across the grain. Smell the sweet burn before mixing it in warm olive oil and completing a holy trinity with bell pepper and celery. Of the onion Neruda said “You make us cry without hurting us.” Certain foods have a transcendent effect. When we become aware that we are sharing in a primordial staple celebrated by the peoples of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, it transports us across time and space and we are more tightly woven into the fabric of human history.But we need not eclipse the present to find calm and peace through connection. Simply take time for a friend. Sit on the porch with your elderly neighbor, play backgammon or Parcheesi and watch the day take on the pace of a rocking chair.
Or walk out your front door into nature. Take off your shoes or lie down in the grass to reconnect with the earth we’ve forgotten. Look up at the sky at the same birds and squirrels in the same trees you see around you every day. But notice the new dimensions, the new horizons that are born, from lying horizontal in the grass. There is an acrobatic wonder taking place right above you, just outside your everyday awareness.
Or even go out and walk in the rain.
What are the things you do to slow down?
CBS Sunday Morning (2012). Examining the broad reach of depression
Twenge, J., Gentile, B., DeWall, C. N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K. & Schurtz, D. N. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145-154.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition. Holt Paperbacks; 3rd edition (August 26, 2004)
National Geographic documentary (2008). Stress: Portrait of a Killer, featuring Robert Sapolsky.
Neruda, Pablo (2006). Ode to an Onion. In Fifty Odes, Host Publications.
Sherwood, B. (2009). The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. Grand Central Publishing.
Zagajewski, A. (1997). Tierra del fuego. In Mysticism for Beginners. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Langer, E. (1990). Mindfulness. Da Capo Press.
Earthworm courtesy of Eva the Weaver
Soccer practice courtesy of woodleywonderworks
Relaxed zebras courtesy of digitalART
A place to slow down courtesy of BLW Photography
The Luminous flask courtesy of Jose M Vazquez
Walking in the rain courtesy of manuel holgado (mholm)