Is it possible to relax in a world where we’re always plugged in? Even on holiday, we’ve got social media, email, and the news at our fingertips. We’re bombarded with data and we’ve become addicted to the feeling, no matter how often it makes us feel unfulfilled and lonely.
“Deep down everyone wants to feel happy,” says Dr Mark Williamson, co-founder of Action for Happiness. “But modern materialistic culture feeds us unhelpful messages about happiness. We’re told that happiness comes from earning more, having more and consuming more – but this isn’t true and this way of thinking actually creates a lot of unhappiness and anxiety.”
Consumption comes in many forms, from the social media we consume to the adverts we gawk over and the friends we wait to hear from – digitally. We’re constantly looking for fulfilment in all the wrong places.
As it turns out, sometimes the answer is to take a breath, break free of the routine and unplug. And for a great many cultures around the world, relaxation is something of an art form.
Here are some of the rituals we love.
Mate, Argentina and Uruguay
In South America, friends come together to share a bowl of mate (pronounced mar-tay), a caffeinated drink made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. They take turns drinking the liquid through a bombilla, a metal drinking straw, while sharing gossip. “Connecting face-to-face with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues is absolutely vital. It’s great for our own happiness; it helps boost our relationships; and it contributes to social trust and a happier community environment too,” says Dr Williamson.
“Research shows that a lack of close personal ties can have as bad an impact on our health as smoking or obesity.”
Continuing with the theme of strengthening social ties, “fika” is the Scandinavian tradition of getting together with mugs of coffee while munching sweet treats. It’s now been taken up by hipsters in trendy cosmopolitan cities, but the fact that it started in Sweden says a lot about Sweden’s attitude to mental health: take it seriously.
“We are seeing a tragic epidemic of loneliness,” Dr Williamson notes, and it affects both young and old, running counter to our natural desire to be sociable.
Fika is a reminder that life is often best enjoyed in the company of others, sans phones.
Tai chi, China
This historic martial art teaches us how to relax through the breaths we take.
“When we’re rushing or under pressure, we often take shallow breaths, just drawing the minimal amount of air needed into the chest area using the intercostal muscles, rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm,” says Dr Williamson. Slower, deeper breaths tell our bodies to relax, and help us get past that fight-or-flight state of anxiety that can be so inhibiting.
Ubuntu, South Africa
This is not a relaxation method per se, but it is a mindset that asks people to be compassionate and to be grateful for life’s small pleasures. In other words, stop worrying about the new pair of shoes your friend is flaunting on Instagram and be mindful of the riches you’ve got already. Ubuntu has spread through the local Zulu tribes and into wider South African society.
In the end, life is precious, but many of us are too busy worrying about what’s happening on our phones to appreciate that. It’s time to take relaxation seriously. Otherwise, you’re scratching an itch that does you more harm than good. So why not get inspired by this map of relaxation activities around the world?
And remember: put the phone away from time to time.
By Kim Wan.