March 26, 2014

Bursting the "Hard Work" Myth": The Importance of Leisure

Bursting the Hard Work Myth:  The Importance of Leisure

Whether you liked the recent Cadillac ad or not ( you know the one where the smug rich guy vaunted the virtues of hard work and disparaged those who took a more relaxed attitude toward life), it raised some interesting questions which are worth talking about:

Why do Americans work so hard?

The American “type A” personality has a complicated history which is made up in part from practical necessity and in part from long standing cultural/religious values. From the beginning, the hard work ethic was essential for early American settlers.  Survival was hard for the colonists and required great physical effort which was seen as godly by their Calvinist religion.  But even after our society had developed and technology made physical drudgery less necessary, our cultural/religious attitudes have remained suspicious of leisure time.  “The Devil finds work for idle hands.”  It is no wonder many folks find it easier to keep working than to relax and experience anxiety when trying to unwind.

Is it true that pushing hard with few vacations is the key to success?

Although counter to common popular beliefs, the push-push-push mentality is not the key to success, creativity or greater productivity. While discipline, hard work and commitment are essential in these pursuits, they must be balanced with rest and mental down-time.  Research has consistently shown that folks who push too hard with physical work outs can actually damage muscle tissue and retard their progress.  Research is showing the very same thing for mental stress. Specifically:  

--The brain needs to rest, i.e.it needs not to be stressed or challenged in addition to the break it receives from sleep.  Mindless inactivity is not “wasted” time. It is actually essential for brain function renewal and to maintain maximum cognitive functioning and creativity.

-- If the brain does not get enough rest or down time, cognitive functioning, that is the ability to focus and stay on task, can deteriorate. Further, both emotional and physiological stress related disorders can also occur.  Indeed Americans spend more on stress related disorders than any other nation.

How much leisure do we need?

While there is no magical number of hours to rest formula that is best for everyone, the goal is to prevent a physical or emotional overload. A simple way to calculate what is best for you is to become aware of your emotional and physical   stress levels and not let them reach the overwhelmed range.  Muscle tension and pains, physical symptoms such as headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal issues are common signs. Likewise, increased irritability, anxiety and difficulty concentrating are emotional signs of stress build up and that it’s time for a break.

What are some tips for keeping our work and leisure in a healthy balance  ?

     1. Do an attitude check .  Do you have trouble doing relaxing? Do you think of rest and recreation as wasted time ?  Do you understand that rest and regular time for leisure is a necessary part of a healthy and productive lifestyle? If you feel guilty when you are taking time off, this is a problem which you can overcome.  

    2. Learn to monitor your own stress levels and ask yourself how long it’s been between breaks and leisure opportunities. Get to know your body. It will tell you through increased muscular tension levels when it is time for a break.  Don’t let the tension levels get too high before taking some downtime.

    3. Don’t Wait. Be pro-active and learn to schedule breaks and vacations into your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly planners. Don’t wait for stress to build up plan ahead and make leisure a regular part of your schedule. It’s ironic that some folks take better care of their automobiles than they do their own health or emotional well-being. Looking ahead with a calendar is a good way to block out good self-care maintenance.

    4. Meditation and yoga are good ways to clear one’s head and  things like finding a hobby that you enjoy or spending more time with good friends can help motivate you to make more time for leisure.

The Reverend Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  3 26 2014

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