“The truth is, when it comes to vacation, rest and relaxation aren’t just overrated. They might even work against the very things a trip is meant to cultivate: a mental reset, a sense of relaxation, happiness. A better vacation is one in which vigorous exercise features prominently. That way, you can take a break not just from work and routine life but also from the tyranny of self-absorption.”
Okay doc, what do you suggest then?
“Recently, a close friend and his wife invited my husband and me to join them on a cycling vacation. I was a bit nervous; I’m a serious swimmer but not an experienced cyclist. Riding 30 to 40 miles a day through Vancouver’s impressive hills for five days sounded like hard work, not pleasure. But by the end of our first day of riding, I was overtaken by euphoric calm.
The work of managing hills by bike has a special way of commanding your attention. I was so busy thinking about whether I could hold my pace for the next rise and how fast I could go downhill without wiping out that I had no time to think about myself. I started looking forward to getting up early and hitting the road. I took in the mountains and forests, dense with cedar and fir, but my focus was really on the bike and the road.”
But this entire Humble Blog is based on the need for more introspection. If everyone is just hammering up hills on two wheels, are we really better off?
“In fairness to the rest-and-relaxation lobby, some introspection is indeed good for you, and being able to tolerate idleness and boredom is a sign of psychological strength. I’m a clinical psychiatrist, and I know well that self-understanding is a cherished goal of therapy. But too much self-examination doesn’t make you happier or more enlightened. Besides, vacation is not the time to work on that skill. You can incorporate moments of idleness into your daily life if you want to get better at sitting with yourself, but vacation is a time for feeling good and escaping responsibilities, including the ones to yourself. Accordingly, you should do what makes you feel good, and that’s activity, not idleness.”
As an endurance athlete, I’m keenly aware of how my brain waves fluctuate markedly during most workouts. If I’m going uphill and/or into the wind, my focus narrows a lot on the task at hand. If I’m descending and/or with the wind, my mind drifts to numerous other non-athletic things. I might even begin writing the next blog post.
All movement is good, but add some intensity in on occasion. Even on vacay.
Advises Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic.
“In one study from 2015, researchers assigned people to walk in either nature or an urban setting for 50 minutes. The nature walkers had lower anxiety, better mood, and better working memory. They were also much less likely to agree with statements such as ‘I often reflect on episodes of my life that I should no longer concern myself with.'”
This morning I went on a short run. I listened to Apple’s Barefoot Acoustic playlist and admired the light fog and dug the slightly cooler morning temp while realizing fall is coming. Still, by the end of the run, I worked up enough of a sweat to head down to the water, (mostly) disrobe, and slip into the Salish Sea. I sat perfectly still in the perfectly still water, up to my chin, admiring a couple birds. A few sculls materialized nearby. They no doubt were intimately familiar with the power of nature.
I felt lucky to be alive.
It’s come to my attention that half of humanity would benefit from being much more introspective. From pressing pause, stepping off the treadmill, turning off the screens, and carefully examining their life. Truly getting in touch with their feelings by breathing, journaling, talking to someone who is empathetic.
The other half, the “overthinkers” get more anxious the more they think about past problems and current challenges. Their thinking spirals. One anxious thought begetting another. They might benefit from doing more and thinking less. Such as being an empathetic listener for others, walking a dog, tending a garden, cycling*.
To flourish interpersonally and positively contribute to the common good one must routinely “work on” themself, but there’s a point of diminishing returns.
Except for me, No one strikes the perfect balance, so extend grace to people in both buckets.
Name an emerging field of therapy.
“Her goal is not to be released from her fears about the warming planet, or paralyzed by them, but something in between: She compares it to someone with a fear of flying, who learns to manage their fear well enough to fly.
‘On a very personal level,’ she said, ‘the small victory is not thinking about this all the time.’”
The gist of the story.
“Osaka, 23, . . . revealed that she has experienced depression and anxiety since winning her first major at the 2018 US Open and explained that speaking to the media often makes her nervous. She apologized to any media members she had impacted with her decision.
‘I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give [the media] the best answers I can.'”
This is bigger than the French Open. Osaka is emblematic of a generation that struggles with anxiety disorders and mental health more generally. The question is how are employers going to adapt to their young, often anxious employees? The best course of action will hinge on the type of work. But it starts, in each case, with heightened sensitivity to the issue.
In Osaka’s case, tennis needs her WAY more than she needs tennis. In 2020, she earned $50 million from tournaments and endorsements*. Osaka preferring Instagram to post-match pressers makes perfect sense because she can control the message and her social anxiety. It was painful watching her squirm under intense questioning about a poor performance in a previous tournament. Professional tennis “powers that be” should start thinking about how athletes can leverage their social media to increase their and their sport’s popularity. The post match presser is analog, social media is digital. Osaka isn’t saying she doesn’t want to interact with fans, she’s saying she just doesn’t want to do it live right after matches.
When professional tennis comes to ask me what they should do, I will be brief. Always accommodate.
*I suspect Osaka’s mental health challenges and transparency about them make her an even more popular endorser of products. I also suspect she’d forego many millions for peace of mind.
In one sub-section of my first year writing course we read about contrasting parenting philosophies and some students write about how they were raised and whether they intend to parent similarly or differently.
When listening to them reflect on their childhoods, I’m always struck by the chasm between their family lives. About half describe their families as loving, supportive, and close. Another half describe some sordid version of explicit, unhealthy dysfunction. It seems there’s no middle ground.
Often I think the same thing about people and time. Half of people, having or choosing to work super long hours, don’t have nearly enough time. To be introspective. To think about the meaning of life. To live intentionally.
And unless they have compelling hobbies, another half or so who are unable to find work or choose not to for whatever reasons, may have too much time for optimal mental health. Because one of the most common mental health challenges today is dealing with anxiety about things like the ‘rona and the vaccine. More specifically, there’s a tendency to overthink whether one might get the ‘rona or whether one might suffer serious side effects as a result of the vaccine.
I am not a mental health professional so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that having to work, or more generally, to have some sort of responsibilities for others’ well-being is a salve for overthinking things. If I’m listening to others, caring for them, helping them somehow, I am less susceptible to the anxiety-inducing thoughts that endlessly loop in my head when I don’t have any responsibilities for other living things, whether people, animals or plants.
With shorter work weeks, I suspect European countries are threading the ‘time needle’ in ways that are healthier, mentally and otherwise, than we are in the (dis)United States. Cue related discussions about the federal minimum wage and universal health care.
It’s resolved one of teaching’s greatest challenges—making wise choices about things like requests for extensions on assignment due dates in light of individual student’s different life challenges. Or even making educated guesses about whether absences are legit or not.
Now, when a student asks for an extension, I always respond, “That’s fine. How long do you need?” When they explain why they weren’t in class, “No problem. We missed you. Hope you feel better soon.”
I’ve morphed into an easy grader too.
My policy is best summed up thusly, “Socially isolated, uber-anxious, overwhelmed young adults get the benefit of the doubt. Every time in every way.”
Thursday, First Year Writing, The Morken Building 131, the first in-person class of the academic year. Students take turns summarizing their first papers about whether one needs, as a Stoic philosopher we read argues, a coherent philosophy of life and a “grand goal of living” to avoid squandering one’s life. They’re smart, so they push back at the suggestion one can neatly plan their life. They talk about some things being outside of our control, like viruses.
If not a coherent philosophy of life, what about guiding principles I wonder. And if so, which ones? They’re not quite ready for subtly, nuance, ambiguity, complexity. That’s why college is four years long. For now at least, I keep those thoughts to myself and just listen.
One student says her mother died in February. Not expecting that, I loose track of what follows, wondering how she died and what would it be like to lose your mom at 17 or 18. She says doing well in school doesn’t matter as much as it did previously.
The students, many who say they struggle with anxiety, have never enjoyed going to class more. Not because of the doofus facilitating things, because they’re famished for friendship. Flat out famished. They linger afterwards, partly to disinfect the tables, but mostly to extend our shared sense of normalcy as long as possible.
The student whose mother died walks up to the front to talk to me. Through my mask I thank her for having the courage to share that news and gently inquire about her mother’s passing. She tells me her mother chose “Death With Dignity” after a lifetime of being severely disabled. And she wanted me to know the paper was really challenging to write, but my sense was, not in a bad way, in an important way. I think it caused her to grieve her mother in a way she hadn’t. She ended up writing her mother a letter and using parts of it to begin her paper.
For those few moments, as her classmates slowly filed out of the room in small groups, she and I shared a human connection that superseded our teacher-student identities. I saw her and heard her in a way that’s utterly impossible on-line.
I am all in on the scientific consensus regarding masks, social distancing, maximizing time outdoors, and washing hands. I am comfortable enough returning to the classroom because my university has done an excellent job preparing for as safe as possible a return to in-person classes. I will not help politicize this public health crisis.
What follows is a non-partisan question, my reference point is the social-emotional health of young people.
If we don’t begin implementing “blended” or “hybrid” teaching methods soon, with at least some in-person instruction, what are the social and emotional costs to friendless students who are not being seen or heard in any kind of meaningful way?
Life not on hold.