Sweetness of doing nothing

2019-12-04 06:00

I’M sitting on the Gautrain on my way to the airport, and grinding my teeth. A woman sitting across from me is having a telephone conversation with someone in her office.

This is nothing unusual, except she is using wireless ear pods, which means she doesn’t register the volume of her voice, so the rest of the train carriage has to listen to her office briefing. She’s obviously a busy woman as she goes from one call to another, oblivious of the fact that everyone around her is getting riled. By the time I get to the airport, my jaw muscles are aching from their workout. Yes, it’s that time of the year.

We seem to reach the end of every year just a bit more battered and bruised than the last — 2017 was fast and furious; last year escalated and it felt like being in a washing machine spin cycle; and this year has just pushed everyone over the edge.

A toxic mood prevails. Politics has become more polarised, thousands of people have been retrenched, the economy has moved at a snail’s pace, differences in opinion have become more extreme and more people have started talking openly about mental-health issues.

The concept of “bombardment stress” — a trend I tracked at the start of the year — is all too real. It was significant then that in May, New Zealand created the world’s first “wellbeing budget”. The budget focuses on mental-health services, support for indigenous people and victims of domestic violence, and funding to help pull children out of poverty.

I think every government should follow suit. The world needs it.

Many people will be going somewhere for a December break, but I know many others (due to budget constraints or personal choice) who will be taking a “staycation” — having a holiday from work but staying at home. This has increased in popularity since the global financial meltdown that began in 2008.

After a year of bombardment stress, I think it is a wise thing to do. I don’t have the energy or emotional capacity to take on more stimuli. I need to pause and breathe, and I know I am not alone, so I looked into the benefits of staycations.

A staycation allows for the Italian concept of “dolce far niente” — the sweetness of doing nothing. It is something the Italians have honed to a fine art. It is not about being lazy, but about the pleasure you get from being idle. It’s the ability to enjoy fully and savour a moment. For Italians (and other Europeans), this is part of everyday life — taking a lunch break instead of eating at your desk, watching the world go by from a pavement café and possibly taking an afternoon nap. It is about luxuriating in the rare commodity of free time and having nothing to prove during your time off. Sadly, in our perpetually busy lives (which are less productive than we think), this is something we’ve forgotten the value of. Time to just be.

Delving into the benefits of dolce far niente dovetails perfectly with the teachings of Professor Laurie Santos, who teaches psychology at Yale University in the U.S.. Her class, Psychology and the Good Life, is the most popular class in Yale’s 300-year history. The class is essentially about learning to be happy again, and the number of students taking the class (one in four) illustrates a great need resonating around the world.

In her class, Santos dispels the myths of what we think makes us happy, including our salary, social status and material wealth — the trappings of “the good life”. Instead, as social beings, what really makes us happy is connecting with friends and family, physical activity, time outdoors and being mindfully grateful for what we have.

The psychology part of her course is understanding the concept of “hedonic adaptation”, something your mind is wired to do. Also known as “the hedonic treadmill”, our brains are wired to return to a set level of happiness despite surges in happiness. For example, buying a new car brings limited joy as, after a while, your car just becomes a mode of transport. Your brain adapts to something pleasurable very quickly, so once the novelty wears off, it seeks another fix.

A staycation will help stem hedonic adaptation because it will cultivate a deeper appreciation of the place you’re already in but don’t see because you’re too busy. I’m looking forward to rediscovering my life, and my sanity (which I lost in about June).

I hope you all treat yourselves to some dolce far niente this holiday season. You’ll be amazed at what your brain comes up with when you give it time to think.

• Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.

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