Sunday, July 26, 2009

Are We Obsessed with Being Busy?

Despite the fact this summer has been filled with searing economic pains, deaths of too many, crazy weather disasters and money laundering scandals, warm temperatures beget a yearning to slow down. An agrarian throwback, summer is supposed to be a time to relax, enjoy a meal outdoors, have a few friends over, or nap in a hammock. In my last post, of "Why American's are the Worst Vacationers" I explored our reluctance to truly unwind.

While we may want to slow down, most of us cannot shut the madness off. It is as if our collective CPU's are running on overdrive, and our brains are whirring like the fans behind the home computer on a hot day. We are working harder, faster and without stopping for so long, the idea of just shutting down is barely comprehensible.

Have you ever noticed the typical answer to the question, "How are you?" has shifted from "I'm fine" to something like; "Fine... but busy." Busy. The word flies around like the black flies in my kitchen. Being busy has become something of an expectation, a badge of honor. If you're NOT busy, you must either be a loser, or in a slump.

According to a survey of 6,500 executives, conducted for Sheraton Hotels and reported in the Daily News (9/15/08): 85% of professionals feel compelled to be on call around the clock, occasionally get up in the middle of the night to check their e-mails, 87% bring their BlackBerrys into the bedroom at night, and 84% check their e-mail right before going to sleep.

Aside from work, we have created a great pressure to be "busy" filling the social calendar. Arrangements for lunch, coffee, drinks and exercise have replaced just strolling over to the neighbor's to hang out for a couple of hours. Today, more American's are living alone than ever before, and the protocol for "dropping in" has shifted from the norm to downright rude. Everyone is "too busy" to be bothered with an unexpected guest.

Today's families operate with "busy" as standard fare. From infants on, each day is broken into segments filled with "something to do." There are baby fun centers all over the country just for toddlers. As they grow, most 3-5 year olds are scheduled with several activities that sets a pace, and an expectation to be busy. It never lets up through the school years. In fact, residents in my town are fighting to change a policy that does not allow middle school children any time for recess during the day. Clearly the school supports "busy" too. At what price?

The allure of being engaged and busy is seductive - yet living in a chronic state unravels our emotional equilibrium and puts our health at risk. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her essay "The Cult of Busyness," said that being busy has become the new status symbol, more than cars, homes, clothes, or money. Admitting you don't like busy must mean you are depressed. And, if you stop being busy, you may just have to face deeper feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Dr.'s Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz have a new book called, The Lonely American- Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. The married pair of therapists has found many of their clients are coming to them with a powerful experience of loneliness, yet it is a state they barely recognize, and are reluctant to share, as if it were somehow shameful. It is more acceptable to be depressed than to be lonely-yet loneliness appears to be the inevitable byproduct of our frenetic contemporary lifestyle.

"Americans in the 21st Century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us: studies show that we feel increasingly alone," they write. "Unfortunately, talking about loneliness in America is deeply stigmatized; we see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness."
Olds and Schwartz continue; "People in our society drift away from social connections because of both a push and a pull. The push is the frenetic, overscheduled, hypernetworked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd. As a culture, we all romanticize standing apart and long to have destiny in our hands. But as individuals, each of us hates feeling left out."

I struggle with being busy vs. being burned out on a regular basis. I like to drive fast, eat fast, read fast, type fast and can multi-task with the best of them. When I finally do stop, I often walk around in circles, trying to figure out what to 'do' with myself! Sound familiar?

The only way to have enough energy to properly develop those connections is to get off the merry-go-round and slow life down. There is even a whole, "slow movement" - complete with categories like slow cities, slow food, slow schools and slow money. Think Italy...ahhh.

The founders of Slow Movement recognize the trend of being to busy as "time poverty," and write,

"We are searching for connection. We want connection to people - ourselves, our family, our community, our friends, - to food, to place (where we live), and to life. We want connection to all that it means to live - we want to live a connected life."

While going slow may not be completely appealing, I ran across a word recently that I love: "Downshifting." It has been drifting through my mind quite regularly. The whole idea is desirable in a deeply primal way. I could potentially see idling down from 5th gear to 4th now and then. Tracey Smith started a movement for downshifting, and promotes a "National Downshifting Week" every Spring. Downshifters are those trying to recover from a credit crunch, live more sustainably or consciously spend less in order to have more time with the ones they love.

Like any fast car, downshifting cannot happen all at once. No one goes screaming down the highway at 90 mph and then throws it into first. Downshifting requires one gear at a time. How can all of us downshift just one gear this week? Here's some ideas:

- Make a meal at home instead of eating out.
- Make a point not to check emails after 6pm and dust off a book.
- Go for a long walk before work- even if you get a little sweaty...
- Let the house get a little disheveled
- Use some of that vacation time and take a half day off.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why American's Are the Worst Vacationers

Ahhhh, summer's here, and with it come trips to the beach, bar-be-ques, fireworks and vacations. Been on a vacation yet this summer? How was it? Did you come back feeling rested and refreshed? Good for you. Or, did you get swept up into a modern 'American-style' vacation: unable to forget about work, anxiety about email pile-up, tweeting every moment as it happened, and returning home wiped out, cranky and desperate to get back to the desk and routine? Taking time to unwind is hard enough, and knowing how to unwind properly is another matter.

What has happened to our vacations? We work all year, and save up our hard earned dollars for a getaway, only to spend far more money than we intended, race around, and get annoyed with each other. For families, the trends are mega watt destinations like Disney, Great Wolf Lodges or all inclusive resorts with constant stimulation, plenty of places to burn cash, and little in unstructured relaxation or spontaneous adventure.

Many are not able to take a vacation at all this summer - can't afford it. Sadly, these are often the times we need it the most. A vacation can be created with very little money; the commodity we are all lacking is time. Whether the job doesn't allow it, or workers are afraid to leave; Americans take fewer vacations than most other countries, and the ones we do take are getting busier, more expensive and consumer driven. Are we the worst vacationers in the developed world?

Only 14% of Americans took two weeks of vacation last year, and the number of Americans taking family vacations has dropped by a third in the past generation. The price we pay, by not getting away to unwind, is huge on our physical health, relationships, and emotional sense of well being.

Why are we reluctant as a culture, to support taking time off? Are vacations too costly to our GNP? Turns out job stress and burnout is said to cost our country over $300 billion per year. Our European friends have managed to compete in the modern era while continuing to take their month long "holiday"- are they just slackers?

As much as we'd like to think so, the answer is, no. The level of productivity per worker is the same, or slightly higher that ours, despite the fact they work 300 fewer hours per year. Europeans spend half the amount on health care as the US. They are requiring less health care, partly because Europeans are 50% less likely to have heart disease, hypertension or diabetes before age 50 than Americans.

Rethinking the importance of time off yet? Vacations are not just luxuries, or pithy pastimes for the rich. Statistics are showing that other countries who take regular vacations are happier, and live longer than we do. In 1980, people in only 10 other countries lived longer than we do. Now, people in 41 other countries live longer. Wow. That's a pretty compelling reason to make sure that all Americans are getting some R&R, and that we learn how to truly "get away."

As a matter of fact, 137 other countries are ahead of us in guaranteeing at least some vacation time. We have none. Zero. No required vacation time or paid holidays. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 28 million Americans -- or about a quarter of the work force -- don't get any paid vacation. We are the veritable Ebenezer Scrooge of the world for R&R. At a minimum, every European worker is guaranteed four weeks paid vacation by law; most get six or more.

Fortunately, there is a new bill, called the H.R. 2564: THE PAID VACATION ACT OF 2009, introduced by Congressman Alan Grayson, to offer one week of paid vacation time for companies with over 100 workers, increasing to two weeks after three years, for all employees working at least 25 hours per week. Grayson proposes more vacation will stimulate the economy through fewer sick days, better productivity and happier employees.

Keep in mind seven days is modest, compared to the required 20-30 days of vacation time required in Europe and Australia. Canada and Japan offer 10 days minimum to start. According to an article in Politico, "the United States is dead last among 21 industrial countries when it comes to mandatory R&R."

John de Graaf is the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, an organization challenging time poverty and overwork in the U.S. and Canada, and is a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and over-consumption in America. DeGraaf is fighting to make sure this bill is seen, understood, and pushed to pass to President Obama's desk. He is hosting the first national "Vacation Matters Summit" conference on August 10-12 at Seattle University.

DeGraff states on his site, "A new poll finds that more than two-thirds of Americans support a law that would guarantee paid vacations for workers. The poll found 69% of Americans saying they would support a paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more. Take Back Your Time advocates for three weeks paid vacation or more."

Supposedly, the "idea" for advocating for paid vacation time came to Senator Grayson when we was at Disney World. He said,
"there's a reason why Disney World is the happiest place on Earth: The people who go there are on vacation."
He went on to admit that,
"as much as I appreciate this job and as much as I enjoy it, the best days of my life are and always have been the days I'm on vacation."

I found this rather funny and ironic. While Disney is an amazing place, I am not sure it is the ultimate place for a relaxing vacation. I believe there are two types of vacations these days. One type is to "see-do-buy." Enchanted by ads with pyramid water slides, entertainment and activities, these vacations clock a mile-a-minute pace, and usually run a hefty bill. They are fun for sure, but I am not convinced they provide the type of deep unwinding our bodies require to combat stress and fatigue. Our family has taken several of these vacations, and by the end, I am ready for a break!

The other type of vacation is just to "be," with plenty of time to read, sleep, walk, and downshift. The recession is creating an interesting vacation trend this summer- a huge spike in camping trips and visits to National Parks. Cheap, full of fresh air and untold beauty, a trip like this is sure to help gain perspective on what matters, exercise the body, and offer time for more thoughtful conversations than, "Dad, can I have a few more tokens?" A national park, local hike or gazing at scenes of natural beauty, is a key component to unhook our nerves and reset the proverbial clock for any age, single, young couples, families, or retired.

I asked about the difference between consumer vs. natural vacations to Bill Doherty, the Director of the Citizen Professional Center, and Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. He said,
"Given the trend towards shorter and shorter vacations, it does seem to be the case that American families are packing in more activities into shorter time periods: fly to Disney World, run around for several days, and fly home. That's different from the traditional long road trips and the trips to the ocean where they family holed up for a couple of weeks. The biggest benefits from family vacations come from down time and family members entertaining themselves, not from crowded entertainment schedules and consumer festivals. It's kind of like the difference between a family dinner at home and a quick trip to McDonald's."

Moral of the story? If you believe vacations should be required, write to your local congressional leaders and express your support. Then, carve out a little sunshine for yourself, spread out a blanket, close your eyes and relax. Think of it as your own personal stimulus package.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Asking for Help- the Other Side of Volunteering

I heard a wise phrase the other day: "in every moment, you are either serving or being served." The give and take, or giving and receiving, is a constant balance of life. How often to you serve others, and how often do you allow others to serve you? Is it easier for you to give than to receive?

In my last column, I asked the question of "Why Don't We Volunteer?" And issued a Dare to Care as a means to challenge all of us to get out of our routine, and lend a hand to help support President Obama's United We Serve campaign. Today, I'd like to explore the topic of volunteering from a larger perspective. The other side of volunteering is asking for help. Today, more and more Americans need help - in big ways and small, and asking...... well, is not so easy.

I stumbled across a fantastic example of this blend of giving and receiving, in William Brandon Shanley's grassroots company: Give, Get, Share. His slogan is a mathematical equation: +Give -Get = Share. His site claims,
"We're a gifts and wishes pool. We match resources with needs. We organize goods, services, people power, brainpower, and the indomitable human spirit and make them available to everyone for free. As a public service. To help people. To enhance life. To save the Earth."

This site is undergoing a retooling to make it even more user friendly. Shanley said, "Give Get Share is about values fulfillment of knowledge, inspiration, professional services or the arts. You can be a millionaire in Miami and be lonely, and ashamed of your loneliness. But to a family of five, who are needing a grandparent, it is a gift."

Currently, there are more Americans living alone than any time in history. According to the General Social Survey from Duke University, 25% of Americans have had no one to discuss important life matters with in the last six months. The idea of success being tied to self reliance is strong, and asking for help is a sign of weakness - at what cost to us all?

President Obama has declared there are "too many jobs lost," with unemployment rates climbing ever higher. When the statistic becomes a reality, the emotions of frustration, anger, shame, depression and fear preclude the ability to access resources needed to maneuver through the tidal waves. "There's nothing anyone can do," is the easy answer. Yet, maybe someone can lend a hand, pitch in, make you laugh, and ease the burden just a tiny bit - if you just ask.

Greg Cortopassi, founder of Launch Your Dreams, is a career and life coach, who offers the idea of service as a 'life skill' that has to be exercised like a muscle; and the act of contributing and receiving is something we are always doing. The better we become at serving, and allowing ourselves to be served, the greater our capacity for joy in life.

"Many people view the idea of service or contribution as something that comes from a feeling of guilt or obligation to their work, families or communities. Most people perceive that they are just not the "volunteer types," don't get involved unless they have to, and then the act of serving is half-hearted," he explained. "If we hold a perspective that anyone on our path is an opportunity to serve, then it doesn't become conditional or loaded. On the flip side, if we can't receive when someone or something is trying to serve us, it also blocks the flow."

There is a balance in serving and being served. Some of us are better at one than another. Here's a simple example. If someone pays you a compliment, how often are you tempted to either discount it, or quickly offer another one back as a hot potato toss? Come on, admit it. One of those, 'You look great today,' followed by an instant: 'thanks, so do you!' Someone was making an attempt to serve, in a simple and lovely way. Why is it so hard to simply say, "Thank you," and receive?

The fear of opening our hearts to others, being vulnerable, being 'seen' is one of the culprits to the rising feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection in the United States. Despite the assurances the recession is slowing down, many folks on Main Street have not seen the tidal waters receding, and the riptides are moving the shoreline farther and farther out of reach. When people are flailing to stay above water, asking for help is not always on the top of their minds. People are losing their homes, downsizing, coping with job loss, holding off on college and giving up stress relieving vacations.

It is time to move aside the fabricated curtain of "everything's fine" syndrome. The other side of volunteering is allowing someone to help you, to keep you company, to care about you. This weekend, we are celebrating our nation's birthday. Every American is a star on the flag. Every stripe binds and connects us together. Our nation became the mighty power it is by individuals taking turns serving one another, and being served in turn.

As we blow out the candles on our nation's birthday cake, consider: How do you serve your country each day? Do you respect and care for the environment that surrounds us? Do you participate in civic duties? Do you support local businesses and buy American made products? It feels good to serve, so find a way to do so that seems right to you, and be conscious of your action.

How do you serve your fellow Americans? Do you know someone who is coping with cancer, lost a job, or is down and out, who could use a hug, a kind word or a referral for a job lead? Serving them in turn serves our country, and helps you forget about your own troubles for awhile.

How does our country serve you each day? Do you enjoy full access to topics from Iran to Michael Jackson without fear of retribution? Do you enjoy the free speech and citizen journalism of places like the Huff Po? Do you walk the streets freely, without seeing machine gun clad military patrols? How about walking into a grocery story with 200 different kinds of cereal to choose from? Take a moment to reflect, and just to receive. To say, "thank you" for all the goods and services that are so readily available in this nation of bounty.

How have your fellow American's served you? Have you been touched by someone or something that took you by surprise? Have you felt truly supported by your co-workers, neighbors or friends when you really needed help? Take a moment to gather in your mind the faces of the ones you love. Inwardly thank them for serving you, even if you forgot to acknowledge their actions. Every hand counts, as we come together this Independence Day holiday, and a chain is much stronger than a single link.