- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

ATLANTA — Don't just do something, sit there. . Go ahead. Try it. Try not to think about work, chores, the kids, the stock market's plunge or retirement plans. Just go blank, at least for a few minutes. . Can't do it, can you? Which is why it's Saturday and you're not kicking back.

You've got to take at least a glimpse at the paper, if only to find out whether the Dow went up or down or the Braves won or lost. But the longer you read, the longer it will be before you'll glance at that "to do" list you made last night get a haircut, a manicure, mow the lawn, get the car lubed, squeeze in a racquetball game, take a jog, walk the dog, schlep the kids to McDonald's, friends' houses, the movies, the mall or the ball field.

Avoiding boredom is what drives America's economy and our gigabyte lifestyles, but such stimulation addiction is also what drives millions of us to anxiety disorders, depression, exhaustion, even suicide, experts say.

"There's an awful emptiness, because we work so much," says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa and author of "Work Without End."

"The human animal is a meaning-seeking animal, and leisure provides a time to look for meaning and purpose, a spiritual quest. But we need to relax to search for such meaning."

The reality is that few of us take time to be relaxed, looking on boredom as fundamentally bad, according to Leslie Charles, author of "Why is Everyone So Cranky?" She concludes it's because the concept of relaxation has become as meaningless to most of us as, say, quantum mechanics. And this inability to relax without feeling guilty makes us almost constantly tense: at work, home, even in places of worship.

And as the school year kicks off, any last hope of slowing down has evaporated, as parents take on a whole new regimen of hustle and bustle.

That's just another reason we feel we're running out of time, which makes it even harder to feel energized, enthused or, especially, spiritual.

Some of the biggest culprits are technology, competition, communication overload and the increasing complexity of society, Miss Charles says. Too many of us know all too well that Palm Pilots aren't guys who fly planes to Florida. And we also know that even if we make it to the beach for a week, we can never get away from it all.

In 1990, 5 million Americans used cell phones, compared with 140 million now. Pagers go off in movie theaters, supermarkets, restaurants, bars and, yes, even on the beach, where it's also common to see sunbathers tapping on laptops.

Most Americans simply don't know how to do nothing.

And the perception that we don't have time to relax has spawned an industry of self-help books with tips on how to cope, and raised a crop of entrepreneurs who set up shop to help people who just don't know how to get away from work.

Take Andrea Arena, founder and president of Atlanta-based 2 Places at 1 Time, a thriving service company she started a decade ago when she deduced that work, for millions of people, was becoming not the means to an end, but the meaning of life.

Her company started small, running errands, but now has clients all over the country. It caters to folks too busy to take care of details, big or small.

Some examples? Her firm was hired to send an employee to sit at the bedside of a client's critically ill father; to have an employee deliver daily fertility drugs to a busy executive; to have an employee run errands for a bride-to-be that a maid of honor could not handle because she had to work.

"We tell our employees, 'Speak in phrases, our clients don't have time for complete sentences,'" Miss Arena says. "People just don't think they have time to get away from working."

She's partly right. Most of us have time, but are afraid to take it. To wit:

•The average American works a month more a year than in the 1970s; 25 million of us work more than 49 hours a week; 11 million spend 60 hours or more on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

•The typical American worked 36 hours more in 2000 than in 1999. Yet, paradoxically, a federal study found that 84 percent of us would trade future income for free time.

•Though Americans average only 13 vacation days a year the lowest of any industrialized nation one in six of us don't use it up.

"We've forgotten how to switch gears," says Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a clinical psychologist and author of "Your Performing Edge." "It's difficult to take vacations . We feel we must stay busy to keep our jobs or stay ahead of the next guy, and it's become habitual and addictive."

Mr. Hunnicutt says if more of us took time to be bored or found ways to do nothing, fewer people would be depressed, stressed, overworried, overscheduled or obese. But few of us know how to chill without popping pills or turning to alcohol or drugs or food, all of which can develop into dangerous habits.

Relaxation, though, is critical, he says, because it gives us time to use our imaginations, to get in touch with inner thoughts, to seek some sort of spirituality or inner peace, whether through religious belief, meditation or exercise.

Spirituality is also critical for good health, according to physicians and to clerics, such as Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in suburban Atlanta.

"Spirituality is when someone is touched and transformed in an illogical way," he says. "But you have to take time out to think, to feel."

Anyone can experience such deep feelings, including those who have no religious beliefs, says the Rev. Al Bitz, a Roman Catholic priest in Casselton, N.D. "Spirituality is that body of attitudes, values, habits and beliefs that allows us to make sense out of our life and give it meaning," he says. "I believe that all people can have and do have some of these experiences."

Alan Caruba, founder of the Boring Institute in Maplewood, N.J., says many studies have shown that "finding little or no pleasure in life" is a key cause of depression and suicide, but that it takes time to find enjoyment.

"We are conditioned by the media to stay busy," he says, "so we're in a constant state of stimulation and agitation. There's the common notion that somewhere in the world, you're missing something."

Yet work, as well as thinking about productivity, has become an obsession, says Vincent Serravallo, a sociologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. And it's gotten worse since the economy went sour and stock market turned south.

"Humans know how to have fun, but only if the circumstances are right," he says. "Many feel that each second they do nothing, the competition beats them. Doing nothing is becoming taboo."


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