Relaxing Brings Happiness: So Why is it so Dang Hard?

What if someone told you that taking more time to relax will make you happier?

A recent study featured in neurosciencenews.com (cited below) states that hedonism is just as important to well-being as is working towards long-term goals. 

Woo-hoo!! It’s summer, so lets enjoy doing nothing. 

(Full disclosure. When this study popped up on my phone, I had to look up hedonism. I thank Google for getting me through countless nights of writing during my graduate degree!!).

Basically, the research states that it’s important for us to take time to relax, to do nothing, and to just enjoy some down-time.

That’s great news!! Except for the other thing the research found.

Apparently, some of us have a hard time relaxing because of intrusive thoughts. Yes! Those nasty thoughts that can’t stop telling us what we should be doing?

You know, all those times you “should” on yourself?

We get so caught up in what we’re supposed to be doing, that we struggle to enjoy the moment we are in.

Sound familiar? So wouldn’t it be great if the research provided an answer for that problem?

No such luck. 

There are limitations when it comes to scientific research. In order for it to be considered science, the research has to eliminate a whole lot of variables. In essence, research only gives you a very limited understanding of the findings it’s reporting. 

It’s like doing a 1000 piece puzzle and you just found “one” missing piece. Hardly enough to give you a visual of the puzzle.

The most we get from the article is a suggestion. That future research will need to be done, possibly to tell us that setting boundaries around our use of time may be the answer.

Thank you, research, for that one piece of the puzzle.

In the meantime, how do you deal with those intrusive thoughts? Does setting aside time to relax work for you, or are you inundated with thoughts of what you should be doing? Or even worse, guilt about what you haven’t done?

Let’s first understand why those thoughts are there in the first place.

We’re wired to survive. Survival means that we need to achieve a certain level of performance. 

We are also wired to fit in. Fitting in means that we need to achieve a certain level of excellence. 

Performance and excellence require goal setting, growth, and forward movement.

When you’re sitting on the couch or lying at the beach, there isn’t much forward movement. So your mind starts to go into panic mode. It relays all the things you should be doing to ensure you’re going to ‘make it’!

It’s basically like a threat. If you’re not getting that project done for work, if you’re not starting that diet, learning a new skill, or working on a relationship, you will fail. 

And THAT never feels good. So your mind doesn’t want you to relax. To relax, it’s going to take a bit of effort. Sigh!!!

If scheduled time and boundary setting work for you, you have your answer. If they do not, it may take a little more work on your part.

If your mind seems to preoccupy itself with intrusive thoughts that burden your attempts at relaxation, you may have a nervous system (the way your mind processes stress) that is over-full.

Our nervous system is designed to protect us, keep us alive, and help us excel in life. When you struggle to do the things that are helpful for your own well-being, there may be too much going on inside of you.

If this is the case, the following may help.

  1. Awareness: Be aware that the thoughts are there keeping you from relaxing. (I know, that’s the easy part).
  1. Acknowledgement: Acknowledge the themes or topics that are coming up. Write them down if that works for you, or just note them in your head. 

The thoughts want to be acknowledged. The thoughts are seeking your attention, like a warning bell.

They cycle through your mind because they are looking for a solution. Once you acknowledge the thoughts, they will be less powerful in your mind. Not absent, but less insistent. 

  1. Set Aside: Imagine the thoughts are an app on your phone. And, you can open and close the app whenever you choose.

Let you thoughts know you hear them, they are noted, and you will get back to them in the near future. Then close the app.

  1. Take Space: Take space to enjoy your time. Then you can get back to the thoughts afterwards. 

The more you do this, the more your mind will begin to trust you. Trust that you can balance the threat felt by turning off your internal to-do list then getting back to the pressing thoughts after the relaxing is over.

  1. If all else fails, find a good therapist: A healthy therapeutic relationship will help to relieve some of the stress response that is stored in your body. 

This will help to alleviate the energy of the thoughts driving in your mind. And finally give you some space to just “not” be with your thoughts. 

Cheers to hedonism!!

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