Everything is Exhausting

Overstimulated and over everything.

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Henrikke Due, Christian Lambert, Reid Zura, Howling Red (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
October 24, 2020

Why don’t we all just take moment to acknowledge that we are collectively exhausted? The pandemic, the protests, the President’s Twitter feed — everything is exhausting. But maybe it doesn’t have to be?

A woman behind screens
Articles

Anne Helen Petersen has been writing about burnout long before the pandemic. Now she says we’re really starting to run on empty.

Length: 
14:26
Mondays, powered by coffee
Audio

Why does it seem like we always head into Monday feeling let down? Journalist Katrina Onstad explains how we ruined the weekend, and how to get it back.
 

Length: 
7:12
WORKER HARDER
Articles

In one recent study, 50 percent of people surveyed said they often or always feel exhausted from work. Emma Seppala says that it’s because collectively, we’re falling for outdated ideas about success.

Length: 
9:32
Picking up leaves on a leisurely hike.
Dangerous Ideas

Our lives have never been more optimized to save us time. But is it all time well spent? Maybe it’s time to embrace inefficiency, argues typewriter collector and philosopher Richard Polt.

Length: 
3:44
woman in wispy colors
Audio

Clinical psychologist Filip Bromberg says many young Swedes are suffering from serious stress and burnout, to the point where they’re abandoning seemingly good, high-paying jobs in search of more meaningful lifestyles.

Length: 
10:25
A french bulldog doing a snooze.
Dangerous Ideas

Philosopher Lars Svendson thinks we shouldn't be stressing about learning to bake sourdough or memorize TikTok dances in quarantine. He thinks we need to learn to be lazy again.

Length: 
4:05
Show Details 📻
Airdates
October 24, 2020
Guests: 
Emma Seppala
Science Director, Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
Philosopher and Author
Psychologist
Full Transcript 📄

Transcripts are typically available for new episodes within 48 hours of their original airdate. Click timestamps within the transcript for an interactive player on Rev.com. Contact us at listen@ttbook.org to request any unavailable transcript.

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

Hey, it's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps (00:25):

Here we are, month seven of the pandemic, feeling exhausted, like bone-tired, burned out, but not always willing to admit we feel that way. Maybe it's time to change the definition.

Anne Helen Petersen (00:46):

I thought burning out was like collapse, that you just couldn't do anything anymore.

Anne Strainchamps (00:53):

This is Anne Helen Petersen. She's a writer and author of Can't Even: How Millennials Begin to Burnout Generation.

Anne Helen Petersen (01:07):

My problem was that I couldn't deal with small tasks. I couldn't get those small things that were on my to-do list. They just wouldn't go away. Mailing a package, sending in the rebate for my contacts, finding out my dog's registration number, any one of those things on their own are very small and manageable, but together, they come to feel like this overwhelming impossibility.

Anne Helen Petersen (01:54):

I grew up in a small town in North Idaho of about 30,000 people. When my mom had to run errands, this was in the late '80s, early '90s, almost all these errands required physically going to places. I have so many memories, like I think so many people do, of tagging along in the car after my mom had picked me up from school or an activity, and she's like, "Well, we got to do three errands. This is just what we're doing." So it was like, "Let's drive to the post office. Let's drive to the bank." At the bank, I would get to go in and get a lollipop. My mom always wanted to listen to NPR and I always wanted to listen to the hit station, 101.5. But then also, I just remember feeling bored.

Anne Helen Petersen (02:46):

There was something very soothing to me about driving around my small town, the sun setting, just sitting in the passenger seat feeling tired from my day of activities. Now, I think so many of the tasks that we have to do are online or, God forbid, on the phone and require a lot of time that we don't have. I find myself incredibly exhausted by my inbox, by Twitter, by the political conversation, by the COVID counts that keep spiking, like everything, all the time, is exhausting. And I kind of relish that memory of nothingness.

Anne Helen Petersen (03:38):

Oh, I'm so sorry.

Anne Strainchamps (03:42):

That's all right.

Anne Helen Petersen (03:42):

My dog is barking, just a second.

Anne Strainchamps (03:52):

Yeah, that's like today, right? You're juggling work, dog, kids, Zoom calls. It all felt like a novelty at first, but it's wearing pretty thin for everyone.

Anne Strainchamps (04:09):

Anne Helen Petersen was writing about burnout way before the pandemic. And now she says we are really starting to run on empty.

Anne Helen Petersen (04:21):

Yeah, I think we're also entering into the period where any sort of resolve or endurance is running really thin. There was a piece that went viral earlier this summer about our surge capacity has been depleted.

Anne Strainchamps (04:39):

Oh, I read that piece. Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen (04:40):

Yeah, yeah, so in the first few months of the pandemic, people kind of had like almost a fight of flight response to being able to cope with this. Like I was very organizational, I was like we're going to go to the store, here's how we're going to clean all of our items, here's how we're going to organize hangouts and keep in touch with friends and family. And that response can only be elevated for so long.

Anne Strainchamps (05:02):

Plus there's this feeling of when will it ever end?

Anne Helen Petersen (05:05):

Yeah, and I actually, I think about burnout in some ways as characterized by not having any sort of catharsis at any point, you just keep going. Like what is a weekend? Really I do not know what changes in my life on a weekend in any capacity. And-

Anne Strainchamps (05:22):

Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen (05:23):

And also the things that we, before the pandemic, used to punctuate our lives in terms of celebrations, birthdays, accomplishments, all that's gone, right? You don't have any highs or lows, it's just this flat background noise of exhaustion.

Anne Strainchamps (05:39):

That's interesting, until we were talking right now I had not necessarily thought of that as burnout. Do you feel like a lot of people were already kind of burned out from work, and now it's just 24/7?

Anne Helen Petersen (05:53):

So I think it's really interesting that the World Health Organization designated burnout as occupational. This was in the summer of 2019. Because I think Americans and Millennials in particular, but also some other people, there is no delineation between your occupational self and the rest of your self. Right? Work spreads into all corners of Millennials' lives in particular.

Anne Strainchamps (06:19):

Why Millennials in particular?

Anne Helen Petersen (06:21):

So it's not as if overwork or the portability of work is necessarily new, it's more that because of the timing of Millennials entering into the workforce, either graduating from high school or from college, into the Great Recession of the aftermath of the Great Recession, you were working just to make ends meet or to even land a job, you were working all the time for very little, and trying to distinguish yourself by your capacity to work at all times.

Anne Strainchamps (06:50):

And at the same time I do feel like in the pandemic, technology has somehow gotten even more exhausting.

Anne Helen Petersen (06:57):

You know, I wonder how much of it has to do with just our constant yoked status to our screens. A lot of people are on Zoom meetings and also looking at their phones, always being attentive to all of these different screens. It just becomes, even more than before, the source of like all of the stress in our lives, whereas before I think it was a little bit more diffused.

Anne Strainchamps (07:21):

I used to kind of like looking at my email. You know, it was a very, very faint version of Christmas morning, kind of like-

Anne Helen Petersen (07:28):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (07:28):

Let's open it and see what there is-

Anne Helen Petersen (07:29):

Totally-

Anne Strainchamps (07:30):

Oh, my horoscope.

Anne Helen Petersen (07:30):

Like the you've got mail, it was like oh, amazing.

Anne Strainchamps (07:33):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, I think about checking my email and I just feel this deep resentment.

Anne Helen Petersen (07:39):

Yeah. I call it my inbox of shame. Because the things that I don't want to deal with or don't have the capacity to deal with, or know that they require a large emotional output or a large organizational output, those things just fester in that inbox, and so it becomes this real source of shame that makes me not want to deal with it.

Anne Strainchamps (08:03):

I guess what we're talking about is ... Remember when we used to talk about work life balance? Doesn't that kind of feel like a joke right now because-

Anne Helen Petersen (08:10):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (08:10):

It's like what work life balance, there is no separation between the two.

Anne Helen Petersen (08:14):

Yeah, and I think that there's a lot of discussion, and this is something that I am researching for my next book, about what the future of work from home would look like, because right now there's so much resentment. No way, I want to go back to the office. But the office wasn't that great either.

Anne Strainchamps (08:28):

Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen (08:29):

So how can we look at this as an opportunity to see some of these larger vault lines in the way that we organize work in our lives, and think about how when this is no longer mandatory, how we can shift a lot of things around.

Anne Strainchamps (08:45):

Yeah. To just complete the story of work that we're talking about, you and I are two people who are privileged enough to still have jobs.

Anne Helen Petersen (08:54):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (08:55):

And to be able to work from home. I also feel like I can't complain compared to the situation so many people are in, having been laid off, or furloughed, or I have Millennial age kids, one of them just graduated from college, he doesn't have a job yet.

Anne Helen Petersen (09:12):

Right. Well, I think this is a trick that capitalism plays on us in terms of as long as you have a relative amount of stability, then you shouldn't advocate for anything better.

Anne Strainchamps (09:24):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Helen Petersen (09:25):

And I think what we need to think about is not just what's wrong in our own lives, but what is wrong on a societal level, on a community level. And how can we think about making things better not just for ourselves, but for everyone. And that includes recognizing that things aren't good for you right now, they're not as bad as they are for people who have lost their jobs, who are getting evicted, all sorts of other things, right, like there are so many things, so many ways that people are suffering in this moment. But until people who are relatively comfortable can acknowledge that they don't want things to be this way anymore either, then we can't arrive at this sort of consensus that's necessary to make those big changes.

Anne Strainchamps (10:07):

Right, which involves recognizing that you have to get past seeing it as personal.

Anne Helen Petersen (10:13):

Yep.

Anne Strainchamps (10:13):

You have to get past seeing it as, well, I'm not keeping up, I should be ... I'm a bad person for not answering all my email, or having trouble with work life balance. But recognizing that it's a systemic problem and that the same problem that is making you feel like oh, it's my fault for not working harder, it's exactly the same system that is keeping other people from even getting a job, let alone being well paid.

Anne Helen Petersen (10:40):

Exactly. So it's not a personal failure that you can't do your errands, it's not a personal failure that you feel exhausted all the time, that somehow you can't grasp at that ever elusive happiness that we're all supposed to be aspiring to. It's that society is organized in a way that is making it really impossible for all but a very select few to find stability and happiness in the way that we think of it now. So, if you think of it that way, then the only way that you can find it is through society changing. You can apply bandaids, things like ... In non pandemic times things like vacations, massages, the over arching umbrella of self care. But again, the wound is still gaping.

Anne Helen Petersen (11:31):

All of these things are just designed to make you more productive so you can work more. They're just to make you a better work robot. And so I think we have to look for solutions that are not fixated on optimizing the self, but on re-introducing stability that allows people to care about other people instead of focusing on themselves.

Anne Strainchamps (11:51):

And what kind of cultural changes could we work toward in the meantime? I think the most profound change happens when it is both political and personal. We were talking about that feeling of perpetual guilt. I didn't answer all the email, and it's 10:00 my night but my coworkers are still on Slack, I should really answer them. There's also, I think, a cultural shift that needs to happen. I don't know what it is. We get better at saying no, or we try to value laziness? I don't know what it would be.

Anne Helen Petersen (12:25):

Well, one thing I think is to think of ourselves and our actions as part of a larger system. So how are the things that you are choosing to do to grapple maybe with your own burnout, how are those causing more burnout in others? Whether it's like oh, I'm just going to shoot off some emails to solve my own anxiety at 10:00 at night, I don't expect anyone to respond to them, you don't think about the fact that like, oh, when that arrives in my coworker's inbox, even if I don't expect them to respond to it, they're going to feel that compulsion, they will have internalized that compulsion to respond to it as a way of signaling that they are working hard.

Anne Strainchamps (13:03):

So what have you found for yourself personally that helps, what are you doing differently for burnout now?

Anne Helen Petersen (13:11):

First of all, I try not to judge myself. It just exacerbates it, right, you just feel like you're failing at preventing your own burnout, which just causes more burnout, it's another thing to fail at. So I just try to figure out corners of my life that I can be quieter, like I can cultivate solitude, which I like the definition of solitude as freedom from other people's minds.

Anne Strainchamps (13:35):

I love that.

Anne Helen Petersen (13:37):

So for me, I love going out and gardening, or going on long walks with my dog, and not listening to a podcast. Like I love podcasts, but I think sometimes we fill our minds without people's voices in order to not actually have the rest that our minds require.

Anne Strainchamps (13:55):

You're making me feel so much better about nights right now when I say, "I just want to knit." I don't want to listen to anything-

Anne Helen Petersen (14:01):

Yep.

Anne Strainchamps (14:01):

I don't want to talk to anybody, I don't want to read any words, I just want to sit and knit. And then I think what am I turning into?

Anne Helen Petersen (14:09):

No, you're turning into someone who actually likes hanging out with your own mind. I think back on like that boredom that I really loved from when I was a kid, part of the reason that I love thinking about it is because there's no stress in that space. It was just long expanses where I decided what was important.

Anne Strainchamps (14:36):

Anne Helen Petersen is the author of Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.

Anne Strainchamps (14:45):

Coming up, do you feel like you still have weekends? Yeah, me neither. Let's try to reclaim them. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (15:12):

Back before COVID turned our lives into an endless string of bad days, there was this thing called the weekend. Remember that?

Katrina Onstad (15:24):

A few years ago, I was one of a two parent full-time working family with two very busy kids. We were scheduled to the gills. Our devices were pinging with leftover work emails, homework, shuttling the kids between scheduled activities, social events, play dates. There was a kind of sameness, this crush of life, work. I was tired and snappy, I was needing to nap. I was never off, I was always on, and we were all on, the whole family. I felt like a failure. We were just in a grind, and on Sunday nights my son at the time who was about 11 would say, "Was that a weekend?"

Anne Strainchamps (16:31):

And that was before the pandemic. Today a good weekend feels more elusive than ever. So how do we get them back? That's wrote drove journalist Katrina Onstad to write her book The Weekend Effect, which includes the Sunday night blues.

Katrina Onstad (16:56):

That's an actual phenomenon. That actually is something that has been researched, and we really do feel a sort of light form of depression on Sunday nights often. And I think it has to do with a couple of things, one is that there wasn't a break, so there's sort of disappointment in the weekend that didn't happen. And then there's anticipation of the week ahead. But a lot of this has to do with our changing attitude towards the weekend, where we used to be okay with actually taking that time and actually having time off was a status symbol, right? That was the badge of honor for the leisure class, was to have a lot of extra time and down time. And now we've kind of inverted that. And to be busy is high status. So when we have a weekend, we're kind of confused about what to do with it, right, because we don't want to look lazy. Laziness is so stigmatized, and unemployment is so stigmatized. So I think on Sunday nights we're kind of ... We're feeling all of those things at once, it's like a kind of tidal wave of disappointment and anticipation.

Anne Strainchamps (17:56):

Is it because we're also working so hard during the week that we pretty much shove our home lives off into the corner until the weekend, and then the weekend comes and you want to do all this stuff that has to do with maintaining your home life and your social life, and restocking the fridge, and it's too much to fit in so by Sunday afternoon you feel like wow, I didn't actually accomplish everything I was supposed to. So then you're starting the week feeling like a failure.

Katrina Onstad (18:21):

Right, you start a deficit. And that's very true, especially in long hours cultures, when do we have the time to sort of tend the boring stuff of the week, the chores and the domestic obligations, and a lot of that does get shunted off into the weekend. And in fact what many North Americans are doing on the weekend is one, chores, and two, TV. I know that both of those things are kind of linked, and neither of them are particularly rejuvenating. So if we are able to let some of that go, and that rush for domestic perfectionism, I think women particularly struggle with this, and maybe be content with a little more squalor, then we might be able to regain some of that time on the weekend. So I'm a big advocate of squalor, I'm trying to make peace with it.

Anne Strainchamps (19:10):

So when you decided to do what you could to change your own and your family's weekend, what did you discover? Did you come up with some components, some ingredients for having a good weekend?

Katrina Onstad (19:23):

The most useful delineation for me was figuring out that there are two kinds of leisure, there's passive leisure and active leisure. And we were very engaged in passive leisure, which we were kind of passing off as fun, which meant that we were so burnt out on the weekends, and this might sound familiar, I don't know, but we would collapse on the couch and watch Netflix, or watch sports.

Anne Strainchamps (19:48):

That's pretty familiar.

Katrina Onstad (19:50):

Right?

Anne Strainchamps (19:50):

Yeah.

Katrina Onstad (19:50):

Because you're just so burnt out. And that might provide immediate kind of benefits, but they're sort of ... they're hedonic, right? They don't really last. But active leisure is that kind of deeper engagement with an activity, like a hobby, or even a sport with other people, something where you can kind of hit that flow state and really come out of yourself. And that kind of leisure, that kind of use of time, free time, has much more benefits, long lasting benefits. Often that means for us getting into nature, getting out of the city, or even within the city, finding nature, finding beauty, making sure to get to the museum or even just walk over to a beautiful sculpture and take it in. But just really putting the brakes on and reframing our relationship to time so that time doesn't always have to be of service to us, and time isn't something we're kind of chasing, that it's neutral. We can be unoccupied and in that lack of occupation we can find a lot of meaning and purpose.

Anne Strainchamps (20:50):

You said art matters, seeing something beautiful. Why?

Katrina Onstad (20:54):

I think one thing I discovered during this book was that it's really an existential question about what are we doing with our time? What am I doing with my time, why am I even here? Right, like you could go down this rabbit hole pretty quickly when you're investigating leisure. And beauty, it's fundamental to life. It is where we experience our emotions, it's where we're changed and transformed, and I think it's very easy to go a long time without noticing the beauty that's around, and even putting ourselves in situations where beauty is clearly around us. And I know for me that it's ... and research backs this up, I looked it up, it actually does de-stress. Museums are places where peoples' anxiety levels decrease. And to be alert to beauty and to be alert to history in a museum, that's an extraordinary use of time. And it has the kind of benefits that will really last much more than the Netflix binge.

Anne Strainchamps (21:59):

Katrina Onstad, she's the author of The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork.

Anne Strainchamps (22:20):

Back in February or March, at the beginning of this whole working from home life, our little team of producers pushed to be as productive and creative as possible. Making radio from basements and closets will be fun we told ourselves, liberating, a challenge. And it was for a while. But the months went on, our stamina waned. Today we're trying to learn to be easier on ourselves, and to redefine what success looks like. Maybe you feel the same way. Emma Seppala thinks that collectively we've fallen for an outdated idea of success. She's the science director of Stanford's Center For Compassion and Altruism Research, and the author of The Happiness Track. Steve Paulson sat down to talk with her.

Steve Paulson (23:15):

Emma, you open your book with an anecdote from a college internship you had one summer at a big newspaper in France. Can you tell me that story?

Emma Seppala (23:24):

Absolutely. During that time I was an intern running between the editorial floor and the basement where all the facsimiles were being printed. On the editorial floor there was just a lot of stress, quiet, and kind of misery. People just hunched over their computers. In the basement, there was just a party going on. They were having a great time, everybody's working through the night toward the same deadline, and yet there was a completely different attitude.

Emma Seppala (24:13):

The editorial staff were might white collar and the people were just eating their pizzas out of a box and not looking very happy. The basement level was more blue collar in the printing staff, there was just this attitude of let's do this together, let's make this happen and let's have fun at the same time.

Steve Paulson (24:34):

Those workers in the basement, they had wine and cheese and bread.

Emma Seppala (24:38):

They did.

Steve Paulson (24:38):

I mean, they knew how to live well.

Emma Seppala (24:41):

They had a buffet set up for sure.

Steve Paulson (24:47):

So the obvious question is most of us, I think, would like to be like those French press workers in the basement. Why aren't we?

Emma Seppala (24:55):

Well, there's a view that you cannot be successful unless you sort of have to sacrifice your happiness, there's this misconception that in order to achieve your goals, your professional goals, you have to sacrifice your own wellbeing. And if you look at the data, we have this all wrong and that's why I wrote The Happiness Track, because again and again I saw that if you want to be more creative, if you want to be more innovative, if you want to be more influential, more charismatic, if you want to be more focused, and if you want to be more productive in general, taking care of your own wellbeing is the number one most critical thing you can do, your own wellbeing and happiness.

Steve Paulson (25:31):

That's not obvious to me, because it seems like there often is a trade off between stress and success, I guess you could say. That you have to sort of grind it out at times to get to that next level.

Emma Seppala (25:44):

And what you're saying is correct, at times. So we know that stress can really help us move through that deadline, or escape that bus that's about to run us over, it mobilizes us, it mobilizes our mind, our attention and memory get strengthened, we can really focus and get through that deadline. But if this is our constant modus operandi, if this is the way we live our life, actually we're deteriorating all of our systems, we're deteriorating our attention, our memory. We're deteriorating our health, our immune system, and so forth and so on.

Emma Seppala (26:15):

So momentary stress, yes. You've heard of good stress, yes. But if it's a constant way that we live our life, which it is at the moment, then it is not going to help us achieve our goals, but it will lead to burnout and we're seeing 50% burnout across professions, and it doesn't matter if you're a lawyer or you're working for a nonprofit, or you're in the medical field, we're seeing this across the board. Because we've really bought into this idea.

Emma Seppala (26:39):

So for example, when we are very busy we say, "Oh, I better go get another coffee." We're always thinking of productivity in terms of an adrenal rush. We have to somehow be in a fight or flight mode, activating our sympathetic nervous system which is that fight or flight response, in order to get things done. You live this way day after day, you will burnout, and you will be miserable.

Steve Paulson (27:02):

But the other side of this is that I think a lot of us crave that kind of high intensity-

Emma Seppala (27:08):

Yes.

Steve Paulson (27:09):

Stimulation.

Emma Seppala (27:10):

Yes.

Steve Paulson (27:10):

It's not forced on us by our jobs, we go after it. Including in our spare time, it's a rush. But it sounds like you're saying it comes at a cost.

Emma Seppala (27:21):

It certainly comes at a cost, but it is a rush, and you have very accurately pointed out a fact that is very characteristic also of our US culture. So research that I participated in as well at Stanford University as a graduate student, shows that if you ask Americans to define happiness they'll define it in a high intensity positive way, using words like excitement and thrill. If you ask people in east Asian countries, I'm thinking Korea, Japan, China, to define happiness they're going to use words that are low intensity positive like calm, peaceful, serene. So we love intensity, you're absolutely right, and there's a lot of reasons for that. We are an immigrant culture that was very much defined by the Protestant work ethic. It certainly served our ancestors. The question is, is it serving us now? And from what we're seeing, we really need to create some balance here.

Emma Seppala (28:14):

So for example, we're hearing about meditation all the time now, it's a household word, everyone's trying it. And in a way, meditation is an extreme action. You're sitting, closing your eyes-

Steve Paulson (28:24):

Right.

Emma Seppala (28:24):

And doing nothing. For a culture that's so productive, that's extreme. We need sort of an extreme remedy for this extreme lifestyle that we're living. People are taking silent retreats. So the question is, how can we cultivate resilience and one of those ways is to learn to activate our parasympathetic nervous system again. Because we've gotten to the point where we're so engaged in our fight or flight response, that people are not able to sleep at night. That there's a very high use of antianxiety medication and so forth and so on, just to try to calm back down. But we can all do this naturally, there are natural ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system so that you can have a more balanced day, more balanced nervous system. This is something we have to relearn. It's something that we knew how to do as kids, it's something you can observe animals, they're able to do that. One moment your dog's chasing that ball like a maniac, the next moment they're asleep.

Steve Paulson (29:18):

Right.

Emma Seppala (29:18):

Same thing with your kids. But for adults, it's as if we can't turn off again.

Steve Paulson (29:22):

So you said there are things we can do to lessen the feeling of burnout.

Emma Seppala (29:26):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Paulson (29:28):

Like what?

Emma Seppala (29:29):

It's important to learn how to build or resilience. So I'm going to share with you the research that I conducted in Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and I worked with veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan with trauma. Now you might wonder, okay, what do they have to do with me? They have a lot to do, because trauma is basically when you are in such a state of stress and fight or flight that you have not been turned off ever again. You are unable to sleep and you're basically in the highest level of stress that you can be in, of anxiety. These were veterans, many of whom had gone through programs at the VA, standard programs or medication protocols, that hadn't worked for them. Many of them were self medicating with drugs and alcohol at this point because there weren't any other options left for them.

Emma Seppala (30:12):

And we did a breathing protocol with them for a week. Now, it sounds simplistic, but breathing is probably the most powerful thing you can use to access your parasympathetic nervous system.

Steve Paulson (30:24):

When you say a breathing protocol, like what? What do you do?

Emma Seppala (30:28):

Well, it was a workshop that taught a number of different practices. I mean, I'm happy to teach you or something briefly here online if you'd like.

Steve Paulson (30:33):

Sure, go for it, yeah, tell me how should I breathe better?

Emma Seppala (30:38):

Well, when you breathe in your heart rate accelerates and your blood pressure goes up. When you breathe out, it decelerates, your blood pressure goes down. So the simplest thing you can do is start to lengthen your exhales. So taking a few minutes at your desk, closing your eyes, and breathing out twice as long as you breathe in is going to calm your heart rate immediately. Lower your blood pressure, those are some very simple things you can do at the wheel when you're driving in traffic, you can do it when your kids are having tantrums and you need to calm yourself down. The breath is one of the most powerful tools that we have that we don't know about, and it's literally in our back pocket, and it's free.

Emma Seppala (31:13):

What we saw with the veterans was that many of them came in extremely skeptical, as you can imagine. After a week their trauma levels normalized and a month and a year later they were still normalized. It's a huge impact that it had, and really what it was, it was sort of like reprogramming their nervous system to be calmer again, to be themselves again.

Anne Strainchamps (31:40):

Steve was talking with Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track.

Anne Strainchamps (31:51):

Coming up, if there is one country that's always seemed to get work life balance right, it's Sweden. And yet, young Swedes today are reporting epic levels of burnout. When people with six weeks of paid vacation are exhausted, you know it's bad. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (32:19):

Americans have never had so many ways to be efficient. There are entire industries devoted to helping you optimize your life by saving time. You can have meal kits delivered with the veggies pre-chopped. Or better yet, you can just slurp up a meal replacement shake. You can listen to podcast on double speed, learn a language while walking your dog. No wonder we're exhausted.

Anne Strainchamps (32:45):

Maybe it's time to embrace inefficiency. Here's Richard Polt.

Richard Polt (32:49):

It seems to me that our whole culture is about maximizing efficiency.

Speaker 8 (33:01):

Hello there. This is your Conversa Phone instructor, who will teach you the essentials of touch typing quickly and efficiently.

Richard Polt (33:13):

Let's get to the end by the fastest and most effective means. We certainly need that, we need fuel efficient cars, we need to generate energy efficiency and so on. But if this becomes the dominant paradigm in your life, I think that meaning will actually be drained out of your life.

Speaker 8 (33:32):

Ready? N.

Speaker 9 (33:32):

N.

Speaker 8 (33:32):

B.

Speaker 9 (33:32):

B.

Speaker 8 (33:32):

M.

Speaker 9 (33:32):

M.

Speaker 8 (33:45):

Space. C.

Richard Polt (33:47):

So as a typewriter collector, I know that Remington typewriters motto was, "To save time is to lengthen life." And in the 19th century, typewriters were a means to do that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that actually that motto is wrong. Because the more time you save, the more time you waste because you're doing things that are only a means to an end, you're rushing faster and faster, but you're not taking the time to savor things.

Richard Polt (34:16):

So consider the difference between buying some fast food and as the slow food movement recommends, cooking a meal from scratch, maybe with ingredients that you've grown yourself. Or taking the interstate by the fastest route versus riding a bike and maybe taking an hour to get to your destination. There's downloading a song and enjoying it, or there's actually learning to play an instrument and learning to play the song. There's pointing your smartphone at a scene and snapping a picture, or there's dwelling there and sketching the scene, taking an hour to actually make a drawing of it. Or there's writing by word processor, versus typing by typewriter.

Richard Polt (35:04):

Of course in many situations you want to do the efficient thing. But it's the inefficient thing that's actually more enjoyable. And when you dig deeper, I think it's more than just inefficient, it's what I like to call self sufficient. It's an end in itself. It's not something that you're doing simply to get to something else. And the best things in life are the things that are inefficient and self sufficient, like playing ball with your friends, or savoring a glass of wine, or kissing somebody. The faster you do it, the worse it is.

Speaker 8 (35:43):

Learning touch typing is really quite easy.

Richard Polt (35:48):

To waste time is to deepen life, that's my motto.

Anne Strainchamps (36:04):

If there's one country where you would not expect to see much burnout, it has to be Sweden. Land of six week vacations, paid parental leave, free healthcare. But clinical psychologist Filip Bromberg says many young Swedes are reporting high levels of stress and burnout, to the point where they're abandoning jobs and rethinking the definition of success.

Anne Strainchamps (36:28):

Steve Paulson wondered what's going on?

Filip Bromberg (36:33):

So it's strange that we're seeing this so much in Sweden, where we have six weeks of holiday every year. Sweden is being seen as the paradise in work life balance. And yet this started decades ago. The epidemic of occupational burnout.

Steve Paulson (36:51):

What do you think is going on, why is life harder than it used to be?

Filip Bromberg (36:56):

This is a really interesting and difficult question. Maybe life is harder now in Sweden than it was 20 or 30 years ago, partly because we're sort of losing faith in the state being able to provide for us. Because even though we do have social democracy in Sweden, we have seen a change into more neoliberal organization. And really big cuts to the public sector. And then you also have this change where people switch their focus from material gain to a more personal wellbeing approach.

Steve Paulson (37:42):

Which probably means sometimes giving up a good paying job to something else that doesn't pay as well, but is more satisfying.

Filip Bromberg (37:49):

Yeah, but when you make that switch and you realize maybe that money doesn't make you happy. I think we have all like an inherent will to do something that is good for the world, to not just work for money. So many jobs today that are seen as pointless. Then the question is how can you be happy in this system, which is set up to get people happy from making money? This is where the dissonance comes in, I think. When you realize that you can't be happy in this system. And that realization can I think lead people into crashing.

Filip Bromberg (38:27):

The flip side is that it seems like people who come out of this crisis on the other side are fundamentally changed somehow. If they manage to navigate through this crisis, something really beautiful can come out of it.

Steve Paulson (38:43):

I wonder how much of this hits home for you, or is this among people you know, friends, family members who've gone through this process?

Filip Bromberg (38:50):

Yeah, definitely, I'm surrounded. I'm surrounded by them. I can tell you about my wife, Victoria, she was an engineer, worked in the medical industry, in the automotive industry as a consultant in Sweden and Norway. She was pushing herself for year after year to perform, and to please her boss, and to be a good employee, and not looking after herself whatsoever. And this led to a crash, where she wanted to keep working but she couldn't. She had to admit herself to the hospital basically because of serious somatic reactions to distress. And it took her a year or two of rehabilitation and now she's coming out on the other side and she's working in gardening, reasonable hours, making a fraction of the money, but just in this rehabilitation process has been very helped by yoga, by meditation. It's a transformative process for many people, I think.

Steve Paulson (39:56):

What I find so fascinating about this is I think sort of usually the idea of burnout is okay, you have to take a break. But then you go back to your job, you resume the old life, and you're saying that's just not sustainable for a lot of people. I mean, we're talking about a profound personal crisis which then leads hopefully to a transformation.

Filip Bromberg (40:15):

Yeah, and a lot of people are looking back at their old lives and they're saying, "I had everything that's supposed to make you happy. But I was miserable." And they come from good families, their safe upbringings. We grow up and we buy into the sort of modern idea of do this, and this, and this and it will make you happy. After these realizations they look back it and say, "What was I doing and what are we doing as a society? This is ridiculous."

Steve Paulson (40:47):

You know, in America I think the comparable idea would be midlife crisis, but that usually was for people much older, in their 50s, 60s. I mean, they've had a long career and they're thinking okay, is that all there is? What's next? And it sounds like you're talking about often people who are much younger.

Filip Bromberg (41:03):

That's a very interesting comparison, because I think people are starting to have their midlife crisis in their teenage years. We have a significant amount of high school teenagers that are showing the exact same symptoms of burnout as the people from the public sector decades ago.

Steve Paulson (41:20):

Which is so interesting, because basically the expectation in school, let's say they come from a middle-class family, there's the prescribed path to success, they look at that and say, "I don't want to do that."

Filip Bromberg (41:33):

Yeah, exactly. And then you have the older generation that are sort of looking at them and saying, "Well, you Millennials, it's time you grow up and face the fact that this is the way life is going to be." And I think that's not taking into account how the world is changing. Because the future is so frickin' uncertain. It's crazy how uncertain it is. And we're pretending that it is certain.

Steve Paulson (42:00):

Yeah. So you've been describing what is essentially a cultural movement, there is also an intellectual reaction to this, and it goes by the name metamodernism. What is this?

Filip Bromberg (42:12):

Metamodernism is a really interesting philosophical theory or concept. It describes this like cloud or gathering of ideas really that follows after postmodernism. So if you see modern society as having started a few hundred years ago with industrialization and science and rationality, the Enlightenment, and we're coming into the 20th century and people are starting to question these ideas. And that's postmodernism, really. Saying that, well, science isn't always right, everything is relative. Is there such a thing as objectivity? We have feminism and queer theory. Because there are a lot of problems with modernity.

Steve Paulson (42:57):

So then metamodernism is a reaction to postmodernism?

Filip Bromberg (43:01):

Well, it's more than a reaction to postmodernism, it's the next step of integrating all the previous ideas, and saying how can we learn from all of this and move forward? It's a really interesting way to view the world and how it's developing towards more complexity.

Steve Paulson (43:21):

What would be some sort of distinguishing features of metamodernism?

Filip Bromberg (43:26):

So for example, instead of delivering solutions to problems, modernity gave us science and solutions to problems, and that sort of causal reasoning. Whereas postmodernism brings up everything that is wrong with modernity, but it doesn't really provide any answers. And in metamodernism you start thinking more of like what is the process that we need in order to find these solutions together? How can we start having the discussions that we need to have in order to move forward?

Steve Paulson (43:59):

It sounds like you're saying it's trying to bring more value into personal life, into personal development. Whereas a lot of these other intellectual movements kind of almost kept value and the whole notion of personal flourishing out of the picture.

Filip Bromberg (44:15):

Yeah, I think that's a good sort of summary of it. We do see this philosophical movement manifesting in actual political action. Especially in Denmark where there's a party called the Alternative, which gained I think 10% of the votes in Copenhagen, which is a party without a program. So it's a party that focuses entirely on how do we want the political process to change? How can we start listening to each other more? Instead of arguing about who has the best ideas.

Steve Paulson (44:48):

That's fascinating, to have a political party without a program, that almost seems like that doesn't work in the world of politics.

Filip Bromberg (44:56):

Yeah, and I think it ties in really well with the idea that the future is so uncertain. It's impossible to know. We have to stop pretending that we know anything about the future, and try to really surrender to the fact that the future is uncertain.

Steve Paulson (45:15):

What about for you? I mean, how do you integrate these ideas into your life?

Filip Bromberg (45:22):

Well, I work in clinical psychology. I've come to think a lot about that a lot of mental health today is connected to or associated with rigid thinking and this intolerance of uncertainty. We want to control our environment and be able to predict what is going to happen. But now it's not going so well anymore, for some reason. When you try to control something that you can't control, then you have a problem. So in my own life, I try to really embrace uncertainty, and go with the flow, and not have a clear agenda or fixed ideas about how I want my life to be.

Anne Strainchamps (46:17):

Filip Bromberg is a clinical psychologist in Stockholm, and he was talking with Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (46:21):

So I want to leave you with one final idea. If any of these conversations today, about burnout, overwork, and impossible definitions of success have hit home, consider learning how to be lazy. I don't mean lying on the couch all day eating potato chips and binge watching reality TV lazy. I'm talking about a fulfilling, replenishing kind of lazy.

Speaker 11 (47:06):

Did you ever stop to think how much leisure time you really have?

Lars Svendsen (47:14):

I'm Lars Svendsen, professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen. My dangerous idea is that work isn't what is wearing us out these days, but our leisure time.

Speaker 11 (47:27):

And some of us spend most of our leisure time just moping. Moping.

Lars Svendsen (47:34):

In fact, we've never worked less than we do today.

Speaker 13 (47:39):

Hi, Dad. You sure don't work as long hours as they used to.

Speaker 14 (47:43):

That's right, Ken.

Lars Svendsen (47:46):

Most people are actually happy when they're at work, even though they believe that work in general is getting harder. But their own work isn't getting harder.

Speaker 14 (47:57):

40 hour week suits me fine.

Lars Svendsen (48:00):

And we sleep less than we used to do, but whatever we're spending that time on, it's not work. So really, what is wearing us out? What is making us burnt out? It's really our leisure time.

Speaker 14 (48:15):

Well, Ken?

Speaker 13 (48:16):

I don't know. It seems as if leisure time is a problem.

Lars Svendsen (48:20):

The whole norms of work have invaded our spare time, turning it into a commodity that has to be spent as effectively as humanely possible.

Speaker 14 (48:33):

Someday, when I have more time, I'm going to make new furniture for the whole house.

Lars Svendsen (48:37):

We've turned Benjamin Franklin's old saying that time is money into a norm for our leisure life. Many people, perhaps even those experience this, they are more guided by strict timelines, by various appointments to keep and so on in their spare time than in their working time.

Speaker 13 (48:59):

Wait a minute, mother should hear you say that. She's always complaining that she doesn't have enough time.

Lars Svendsen (49:05):

What everyone should call such a time, it's definitely a free time.

Speaker 15 (49:10):

Well, I have to plan the program for the women's club next month. It does keep me busy, but well, that's not work.

Lars Svendsen (49:18):

So what I would do is really to embrace laziness. The problem today is that we've forgotten proper laziness, and as the only proverb, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," many people think that it stems from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but it really goes back to James Howell's proverbs from the 1640s.

Speaker 14 (49:44):

Do you suppose Ken has more leisure time than his friends do?

Speaker 13 (49:49):

Huh?

Lars Svendsen (49:50):

When you turn your entire life into work, you become a really dull boy, and one could say that what differentiates working time from leisure time these days, is that you get paid for your leisure time, you have to pay for working even harder in your leisure time. So start relaxing.

Speaker 13 (50:12):

Like this, huh?

Lars Svendsen (50:12):

Be lazy.

Speaker 13 (50:12):

Is that good?

Lars Svendsen (50:13):

Do absolutely nothing.

Speaker 13 (50:15):

I've got nothing to do but wait supper.

Lars Svendsen (50:17):

And then perhaps this whole phenomenon of being burnt out will burnout.

Speaker 11 (50:24):

That might be some good uses for your leisure time.

Anne Strainchamps (50:27):

To the Best of Our Knowledge was produced this week by a bunch of people who work way too hard. Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Our message to you, be lazy, be kind to yourself, and join us again next time.

Speaker 16 (51:05):

PRX.

Last modified: 
November 16, 2020