We live in a society quite unable to relax. It’s not a human society; that is to say it’s not a society that humans are genetically programmed to cope with. I’m not going to go into how this mismatch between our genetics and our society took place, enough has been written about that already (including by myself and Alicia Fortinberry in our book Creating Optimism).
But here we are: over 20 percent of us are depressed; an equal, if not greater number, suffer from anxiety and this does not include those with related disorders such as manic depression (bipolar disorder), ADD/ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and so on. The rate of depression alone doubles every 20 years!
We’re told to relax, to take it easy, to live for the now, but none of these are possible unless we step back and ask: How are human beings genetically designed to relax? Some of the answers might surprise you.
The prominent Norwegian biologist Bjorn Grinde says that we know we’re doing what is in harmony with our genes when we feel joy. As he says, we’re actually designed to be happy most of the time, to be relaxed and in a “default good mood.”
To Grinde, and others, relaxation doesn’t mean doing nothing. It doesn’t even necessarily mean not working. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about being “in the flow” when you’re doing work that you can lose yourself in. In this state your mind actually slows down, you use less effort and what you do use is more concentrated and more productive. And you profoundly relax. It’s like a stone-age hunter stalking his prey: all the mental chatter and internal dialogue is gone, you’re in the moment, in the now. You’re not consciously thinking about what you’re doing, just doing.
We think of relaxing as “taking time off,” but paradoxically that can often be more stressful than working. More people suffer anxiety attacks or bouts of depression on holiday than at the office or in the classroom. Human beings were not designed to separate themselves from their routine, or from the office or school “tribe.” Rather we are creatures of stasis and tend get separation anxiety when taken out of our routine environment. One of our greatest social problems is the number of people who die, become depressed or get chronically ill shortly after retirement.
If you look at those things which our brains give us a neurochemical reward for doing you can come up with a pretty good list of ways to relax. The beauty of this list is that it won’t cost you a penny to do any of them! This isn’t surprising since we were genetically programmed long before money was invented. Try these steps to lifelong relaxation:
1. Walking with awareness. Walking is the ideal exercise for human beings, it’s what we were designed to do best. But we were designed not just to walk–just power walking around the park won’t crack it for long-term relaxation (though you may get a short-term endorphin high). We were designed to walk with awareness: awareness of our bodies, of changes to our surroundings, of the ground we walk on, of the animals and people we pass (a form of active Walking Meditation). Humans survived because of this ability to be acutely aware and because of this we get rewarded when we add this to our walking (or jogging if you must). The awareness takes us out of ourselves, puts us in the flow.
2. Connecting to your body. Somewhere along the line of our social civilization we lost the ability to be functionally connected to our bodies. It’s hard to relax if you walk in an injurious way, exercise in a way that gives you pain (pain was created as a warning signal), or envy other people’s bodies. Gentle, awareness provoking, exercises such as Feldenkrais Awareness Through MovementTM, certain kinds of yoga or our own Repatterning Movements TM can bring us back into connection to our bodies and can be therefore profoundly relaxing.
3. Studying things that interest you. We humans are the most naturally curious of all creatures, a genetic trait that accounts for much of the success of our success. When we are allowed to exercise this capacity in ways that are our own we get the relaxation reward.
4. Listening to or playing music. The association between homo sapiens (us) and music goes way back. We know that our near relatives the Neanderthals had musical instruments so presumably they, and we, got it from those hominids that came before us maybe up to 2,000,000 years ago. No wonder it’s in our genes and we get the feel-good reward from it.
5. Being in Nature. Our biology has given us the unique ability to appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature. We can lose ourselves in it, be at one with it. The natural world is our genetic home, not the city, or the suburb or even the farm. Recent research has shown that just by putting a potted plant in your office you can aid in relaxation. Kids who are allowed to play in or explore natural surroundings are much less likely to be depressed or be afflicted with ADHD. Stroking a cat or patting a dog has been shown to greatly reduce high blood pressure and stress.
6. Meditating. Perhaps the reason we find meditation so relaxing is that it originates in a natural response to immediate danger. The three possible responses to danger are to flee, to fight or to freeze. A baby deer will freeze, so will a possum (playing possum). This is a state of absolute stillness, absolute relaxation. In it all awareness of the self and of your surroundings (including the danger) is gone, like the deep meditator, you are literally “out of body.” In meditation we make use of that part of the brain, which also facilitates the freeze reaction-it, is literally our escape from the danger of being over-stressed.
7. Indulging in art. Art, like music is in our genes. Long before humans painted caves they painted themselves. When we create something artistic we can get into the flow. The chatter of our own dysfunctional programming and the anxiety of the world can be shut out. We can surrender to the process. With are it really is a case of the process being all-important and the end result immaterial. We are naturally process-orientated, not goal-orientated creatures. Relaxation is a matter of process.
8. Connecting to the divine. We are all wired for spirituality. We need to have a belief system–the Neanderthals had one, so presumably did our joint ancestors. We also have a genetic need for the other things that go with spirituality–prayer (even Buddhists who don’t believe in God pray), ritual, chanting and sense of purpose. The more we give ourselves over to these things the less stressed and the more relaxed we become.
9. Being with friends. Above all else we are a social species. As a ton of research has shown and as we demonstrate in the Uplift Program, our mood, our psychological well-being, and even our physical health, depends on the state of our relationships. If your relationships were strong and supportive in childhood (particularly with your parents) you are much less likely to be depressed and anxious now. The way to cure anxiety and depression in adulthood is through the cultivation of certain kinds of supportive relationships. Relaxation with good friends is therefore bound to give us the most powerful genetic reward of all. Other ways of relaxing–sex, shopping, gambling, drinking or taking drugs–are only fleetingly rewarding. As Professor Stephen Reiss of Ohio State University has shown, reliance on these for happiness or relaxation is, in the end, self-defeating and depressing. You don’t have to these activities in any particular order, but to really make relaxation a part of your life you need to bring as many of them as you can into your life. They cost nothing and can relax you for a lifetime.
Dr. Bob Murray is a bestselling author, relationship expert and psychologist who holds degrees in psychology from New York University and the University of Sydney. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly effective Uplift Program, and author of the acclaimed books Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).