I recently asked a young professional what he wished he would have done differently in college. Even though it has been a number of years since he graduated from one of the most selective and highest stress institutions in the country, he had a ready answer, “I wish I would have pursued a structured way to decompress and socialize.” Knowing that his school had a reputation for eating students alive, he braced himself to bull through problem sets and did not take time to join clubs or make standing commitments. He felt he needed to be successful academically and did not want any distractions.
In hindsight, he realized that participating in a regularly scheduled activity doing something he loved with others would have made him happier as well as forced him to use his time better. He said, “When you don’t have something planned, you tend to putter around just because it is not work.” Back then, there weren’t even smartphone distractions, but many of his classmates cratered because of video games. He de-stressed by running, but did it alone. Today, students waste time with distractions like social media or video games and come out the other end neither de-stressed nor happier. They’ve just lost a couple hours doing nothing productive and they are still anxious and lonely.
Here are some examples of how to constructively deal with this issue. One college student with a tight schedule made appointments several times a week to have a meal with a friend she wanted to keep up with. They both had to eat and they could connect during that time. An engineering student took music lessons all through college so she wouldn’t lose her skill, but also to engage with something that brought great happiness on a weekly basis. Another student joined a club that focused on something he cared deeply about and he treasured spending time with friends working on extracurricular projects together. Another student routinely worked out in the gym with friends.
While all this seem like basic common sense, I don’t feel that it is in today’s culture. Kids (and many adults) have withdrawn into the world of isolated distractions such as YouTube, Facebook, and Google searches. They are losing the ability to cultivate friendships and thus no longer realize the joy and mental health benefits that come from real, live people. They may not have experience selecting and scheduling activities themselves. When they transition to college without these skills, the initial panic of the fast pace and overwhelming classes can leave kids breathless and just trying to survive. They can soon find themselves in a vicious circle of no time, no friends, and no delight.
I would suggest that we begin to prepare our children early for such eventualities. We need to demonstrate and encourage them to find the thing that brings them joy and how to pursue that in a systematic way so that it becomes a routine. I believe we need to limit or even eliminate the electronic distractions so bad habits are not formed. We need to show them in our own lives what this looks like. I hate to admit that I’ve just discovered the need for scheduled delight for myself. My weekly art classes have brought out abilities I didn’t know I had and have given me a new community of very diverse people who have expanded and enriched my world. Up until a few years ago, my own life had been one of putting my head down and bulling through the endless lists and jobs and expectations of others. I modeled for my children how to work hard, but not how to play productively. Perhaps that’s why my son was not prepared to make a regular appointment with joy when he attended Caltech. Hindsight has shown me my mistakes as well.
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