BIn the old days, my best friend and I used to call out “looking for trouble.” We weren’t expecting a fight or a petty theft, but rather a spontaneous adventure involving music, strangers, or just the city at night. All that impromptu fun has taken a serious beating since the pandemic began, for many millions of us. First came closures, social distancing, and closed venues, then cautious reopening when even a trip to the pub or an art gallery had to be booked weeks in advance. And now, just when it seemed like the world was finally back to normal, Omicron has been wielding his sledgehammer that everything has turned off again, crushing all those dreams of nights out, vacations and raucous parties. Not only does it seem silly to plan something, but after two years of frustration and self-control, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm to do something impromptu.
And that is a great loss. While we often think anticipation is half the fun, in 2016 researchers from two American universities found that people enjoyed activities more when they were impromptu. Scheduling a coffee break or movie, for example, made them feel “less free and more like to work,” the authors wrote. As Jane Austen said 200 years ago in Emma: “Why not take pleasure in once and for all? – How often happiness is destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation! “
Masks don’t help, says Edward Slingerland, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and author of Trying Not to Try. “It’s hard to get into any kind of relaxed, spontaneous rhythm when you can’t see the other person’s facial expressions. Our in-person interactions have been emptied of the subtle facial cues that we normally use to tell if the other person is having fun or if a comment is landing the right way. ” This makes even those precious interactions with strangers when they are in the world that much more difficult. Video calls are equally unfavorable. You are not in the same room. There is often a subtle time lag that may not seem like much, but it is difficult for people to tell when you finished speaking, when it is okay for me to start. It is impossible to relax in natural and really positive social interactions that have spontaneity ”.
The good news is that, as counterintuitive as it may sound, you can work to be more spontaneous. For his book, Slingerland analyzed how ancient Chinese thinkers approached the problem. “It involved things like ritual activities, meditation, breathing practices, or just trying to trick your mind into forgetting that you are trying to be spontaneous.” Because, he explains, if you put your mind on the problem directly, you are activating the part of the brain that you need to shut down: the areas of cognitive control. The key is relaxation, not straining.
Slingerland is not suggesting that we moderns start doing Confucian rituals, but, he says, “There is a very similar function that is served by doing things like weeding the garden or going for a walk: using your body in a way that you are interacting with. the natural world”. The first Chinese word for the state caused by these activities is Wuwei. “I translate it as ‘effortless actions,'” he says. “A state in which you lose your sense of yourself as an agent and you become absorbed in what you are doing.” Some modern thinkers might equate this type of state with “flow,” while there are also obvious comparisons with mindfulness. “Look at the sunlight in the trees and listen to the birds and you will be absorbed in something bigger than yourself,” says Slingerland. “That gets you out of your head and allows you to relax.”
It’s not just about enjoying a good night out. We also need spontaneity to embrace change, says clinical psychologist and writer Linda Blair. And change is necessary for progress of any kind. Spontaneity also makes us happier ”. In 2016, a team of Austrian and Italian researchers found that people with less spontaneity in their lives experienced greater “psychological distress”.
The best way forward right now, says Blair, “is to turn things around and instead of talking about hard to be spontaneous, you say, ‘There is no other way to be right now.’ Now is the time to seize the day and move with your heart or your guts. “Do you want to go to your favorite restaurant?” asks Blair. “Don’t plan it, go there today, while it’s still open.”
She notes that interrupting routines can help free the mind. This could mean turning off your mental autopilot and thinking about what you really want for breakfast today. Another spontaneity starter, he says, is having a wrong day. “That is a lot of fun, especially with children. Start the day with dinner, for example, anything that shakes up the triggers that keep us doing the same things. “
Triggers are things that keep us going automatically. The cookie jar that makes us think we’re hungry. The beeping of the phone that leads us to a rabbit hole and delays the preparation of lunch for 45 minutes. Triggers are not friends of spontaneity. So Blair’s best advice to start the day off of our internal naysayers and triggers is to write down all of your thoughts first thing in the morning, before doing anything else. This process is called Morning Pages and was devised by writer Julia Cameron, originally as part of what she called Artist’s Way, a method of unlocking creativity. “The best way to be spontaneous,” says Blair, “is to clean up the garbage that is mentally obstructing you every day. You get up in the morning and write anything, whatever comes to your mind, even if it’s, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Cameron prescribes three A4 pages, but if that discourages you, Blair says he still benefits from writing until he runs out, “or for five minutes.”
Don’t let the pressures of time hold you back. “A person I know gets up at four o’clock to do it, so the kids can’t disturb her,” says Blair. “It’s important to have your own time and see what comes up as the potential to do things in a new way.” Not only does this increase your propensity for spontaneity for the rest of the day, Blair says, but it often sparks off-the-cuff ideas. “Suddenly it wakes you up, for example, you have a dream that you write about having seen someone with whom you realize that you have not been in contact for years. So now you call or email them. “
Joe Oliver is a clinical psychologist who specializes in acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness-based behavioral therapy, and he has some good solutions if you’ve lost your spontaneity. Many of his clients are feeling unwell right now, partly because of the general pressures of the pandemic, but also, he says, because of “the lack of fun available to them. And fun comes largely from spontaneity: doing things and not thinking about them too much, connecting with people, doing an activity and being able to take it in unexpected directions. “
One of the barriers, he says, “is that people want to stay in their comfort zone, where it is safe, predictable, orderly and people know how things are going to go.” The comfort zone can be helpful, especially at times when we need to stay safe, but there is a danger of talking. ourselves out of the adventure. “Overthinking is an absolute classic,” says Oliver. “Getting caught up in worrying about the future: it’s going to be terrible, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to be fun, it’s going to have bad consequences, you’re not going to be safe. And when people get caught up in those thoughts, of course, they do the natural thing to withdraw into their comfort zone. Or they chew a lot ”.
Part of the problem is living not in the present, but in the past or future, thinking, “What about the times it hasn’t worked?” Oliver says. But understanding that this is happening is the first step to regain spontaneity. Reminds clients: “There is good evidence that unplanned opportunities support wellness and mental health.”
The next time you find yourself cowering by doing something on the spur of the moment, he suggests overriding your critical brain and saying to yourself, “I’m doing this because it’s good for me. And I like. It’s fun. Let’s persist through this initial anxiety and see what comes next. ” Mindfulness will help you enjoy the moment you are in, Oliver says, but “it doesn’t have to be a complete meditative practice.” Simply “anchor your feet, watch your breathing for 10 seconds, roll your shoulders back, drop your arms, and spend some time lowering yourself toward your body.”
Catch those limiting thoughts that tell you we can’t draw / skateboard / run in the rain, he says, but don’t try to argue with them. If you challenge the thoughts, create “a little bit of a fight and you can inadvertently give those thoughts a little more power.” Instead, try thinking, “Those thoughts again,” or even thank them for their comments; after all, they’re just trying to keep us safe.
Oliver’s other tricks include taking turns with a friend or partner to suggest new things to do, “to incorporate randomness. I have a favorite pub, but my partner often wants to go somewhere else, outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes, for the sake of spontaneity, we say to the other: ‘Okay, you decide.’ Or sometimes we find a couple of pubs and flip a coin. ” Because while your instincts may tell you to stay in your comfort zone, there is really no way to predict which option will be more fun on any given day.
“As Daniel Gilbert at Harvard has showed us so well“Says Blair,” we do not accurately estimate what the future will be like. Usually we think it’s going to be better than it is. And we also do not accurately estimate what the past was like. We are hard on ourselves and overly critical of what happened, or we idealize it. But now … You can be happy right now ”. She says her patients often tell her about recurring pain that keeps them awake at night because it is so bad. But when you ask them how they are now, they say, “What, the pain? Oh, it’s not that bad. Again with the living of the future and the past. “Right now,” says Blair, “things are usually fine.” And here, Austen is worth repeating: “Seize the pleasure at once.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism