Friday, May 28, 2010


On Radio 4 this morning, they were discussing 'free time stress'. Apparently there is a new German term, 'Freizeitstresse', to describe the generally-felt inability to switch off; and around 75% of the German population have difficulty enjoying free time in a stress-free way.

How do we get rid of that awful feeling that we 'should' be 'doing' something? Why do we often feel as though we have to report back our lives to other people? And why is it so hard to shut out the demands of the world?

I think there are three things going on here:

Firstly, we are dependent on feedback from others for our sense of identity. A workaholic gains constant reinforcement of their identity by always working; when they stop, they get scared, because there is no reinforcement, so they don't know who they are. Whatever we do most of the time, there is our identity. When we stop, we can find it painful, because there is no context telling us who we are. In that sense, we actually find demands quite comforting, because they give us an identity as 'the person fulfilling the demands'. And in that sense, not having demands can lead to a temporary loss of identity. Many people feel happy again when they 'get back into the swing of things', i.e. their usual routine, because it gives them a place in the world.

Secondly, many of us live in an environment where anyone can contact us at any time - we are 'hyper-connected'. We are not sitting in villages waiting for the next letter to be brought over the hill by horses. We have instant messaging. The faster we can communicate, the more we do so. Therefore, even though we may take 'time out', our context follows us into our personal space, and haunts us there.

Thirdly, we have a natural preference to 'answer the external' and 'ignore the internal'. The 'external' is all the urgent requests we receive for action, all our obligations to others, perceived or real. Because they feel more real, we give them more status than our obligations to ourselves (i.e. to rest sometimes, to do nothing sometimes). And if we are always answering messages, always making things right for others, we will never have time for our own priorities.

So maybe there are three things we can do:

1. Be comfortable with doing nothing useful. When we are dead, our bodies will be doing nothing for ever. So a bit of practice seems reasonable. And back in the womb, our job was to do nothing and grow. So a bit of nostalgia sounds reasonable. (That's why some of us love baths, maybe!) It is actually part of our justifiable identity to mess about sometimes, without trying to achieve anything in particular. Just to play. We need it.

2. Turn the world off sometimes. If your mobile was a person, they would be very rude to interrupt you with such noises all the time. Keep your need for contact to a manageable minimum, and go for a walk, or a swim, or a sunbathe, or to the sea... just disappear!

3. Treat your 'appointments with yourself' as equal in importance to your 'appointments with the world'. When we have meetings, why do they have to be with other people? If it's important to get time for you, you can book it in the diary and say 'I have a meeting'. You mean that you have a meeting with yourself.

In summary, we need to create a relaxed identity, turn the world off sometimes, and value ourselves. Then maybe free time can be more of a pleasure.

And if none of that works, we can turn to friends. Because that's what friends are for - to relax with, to distract us, and to give us a value independent of the busy, demanding world we live in.

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