When I was a twentysomething living in the Big Apple, life couldn’t get any faster. I was constantly flitting from one obligation to the next: work, school, gym, volunteering, errands. This addiction to busyness bled into other areas of my life, impacting how much time I spent on social media or partying with people I hardly enjoyed. I had a bad case of FOMO.
Then in 2012, I found out I had to move to Barcelona. My boss at the time knew well my propensity for taking on too much at once. During a smoothie session a few days before my flight, she told me flat out, “This will be good for you. It will force you to slow down. You need it.”
I didn’t want to believe her. I was terrified.
Coming from a culture that glorifies busyness, I was pleasantly shocked to learn she was right. For years Spain has struggled through economic crises and high unemployment rates, but across surveys and studies, the population consistently ranks as one of the happiest in Europe. If you’re struggling to slow down, here are a few cues from the Spanish on why you’re better off taking time to stop and smell las rosas.
You find out what’s actually most important to you.
In “chasing the dream,” I found myself burnt out, sick all the time, and, quite frankly, pretty depressed. What happened? Kellie B. Moore sums it up well for Verily:
The culture and the tech aren’t to blame. Our choices have led us here. The sad part is that we are so afraid of missing out that we actually do miss out. We run ourselves ragged, and our fears come to life. What we’re missing isn’t a brunch or a day at the beach that someone else Instagrammed. What we’re really missing, or rather denying ourselves, is the opportunity for joy—more precisely, the joy of missing out. JOMO.
Moore lovingly calls out what I deeply wish someone had told me a decade ago: “The joy of missing out doesn’t come from what we miss—it comes from investing more in ourselves and what we love to do.”
During my first couple months in Barcelona, I felt like there was nothing to do. Most shops and restaurants were closed midday. And if something was open, it was generally empty. Where was everyone? It turns out, probably with family or taking a walk. A 2015 survey found that 71 percent of Spaniards rank going for a stroll with their partner or friends as their top pastime and that time off was mostly spent with family.
I had no choice but to follow suit. Every day, I’d pack a lunch and walk two miles while pregnant to my husband’s school to eat together or with new friends. Looking back, I wasn’t necessarily less busy (I was working two jobs and taking Spanish classes). I was just spending more time on my treasures: my family, my work, and my faith. Being forced to cut the fat—we didn’t have TV, smartphones, or a sprawling social network—gave me the mental and physical freedom to rediscover my core values.
You’ll be healthier overall.
In her New York Times bestseller Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, author and director of the Better Life Lab Brigid Schulte writes:
Somewhere around the end of the twentieth century, busyness became not just a way of life but a badge of honor. And life, sociologists say, became an exhausting everydayathon. People now tell pollsters that they’re too busy to register to vote, too busy to date, to make friends outside the office, to take a vacation, to sleep, to have sex.
If people are too busy to sleep or have sex, they’re also too busy to take care of their health. In fact, the World Health Organization reports that, globally, one in four adults is not active enough: “Insufficient physical activity is a key risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes. Physical activity has significant health benefits and contributes to prevent NCDs.”
Spaniards rank family, partner, and friends as the aspects of life that create the most contentment for them, according to a 2016 SOCIAL attitudes survey. Their health and free time came next. Yet, unlike in the United States, I found that few gyms exist in Barcelona. Most people spend their time outdoors, trekking nearby trails, walking pets at the park, or strolling along the sidewalks. I also noticed a ton of swimming pools; research indicates they’re responsible for why Iceland ranks so high in happiness charts.
In NYC, I was a gym rat, but I wasn’t any happier for it. On the contrary, I felt guilty when I couldn’t go. And when I was there, I often felt intimidated by the taut bods. A Spanish friend once told me, “Europeans don’t exercise to get abs.” That’s when I realized that my body looking a certain way wasn’t important to me, so why kill myself for it? Instead, I picked up healthy habits such as walking everywhere and not eating out (there was, like, one McDonald’s in the entire city). Since then, I’ve given up the gym, but I’m the fittest I’ve ever been.
You have a better chance of living a longer happily ever after.
The most recent data from Eurostat shows that Spain has the highest life expectancy of all European countries (83.3 years). It might be due to their affinity for walks, a Mediterranean diet, or the excellent health care system, but I won’t rule out the tradition of taking a daily siesta. Typical lunches last two to three hours. Lest you blame laziness, they don’t work less. They simply value rest time in the middle of their workday.
Punctuating the American 9 to 5 with a two-hour lunch likely isn’t going to happen anytime soon (cough*ever*cough), but how many times do you find yourself chomping over your laptop or skipping breaks because you have to finish “just one more thing”?
Last year, Roberto A. Ferdman reported for the Washington Post that according to the latest American Time Use Survey, 53 percent of Americans eat breakfast alone and 45 percent eat midday meals alone. We’ve also been eating breakfast less often for twenty years running. And a 2012 survey found that 65 percent of working Americans either eat lunch at their desks or don’t eat lunch at all. We’re looking for longevity in the wrong place, people.
While we can’t take longer lunches, we can at least plan to enjoy it in pleasant company. Life’s too short to be dining with a desk. Studies show that overworked individuals make more mistakes and are prone to depression, which only leads to increased stress levels. By valuing our break times, we’ll be more productive, healthier, and happier in the long run.
Five years ago, I thought that if I didn’t work hard to get a promotion every year, continually add to my list of accomplishments and obligations, or attend every networking event, I’d miss out on life’s greatest opportunities. My life now is quite different from the leisurely lifestyle Spaniards are renowned for, but I’m so much happier being less busy and more me.
In her quest to find out whether there’s such a thing as leaning in too far, Anna Quinlan writes that you’ve got to “take a breath, look around, listen to your gut.” With a clearer schedule comes clearer eyes to “survey the landscape of choices, to survey the landscape of your own identity, to decide what it is that you want for yourself—your real, authentic self—and to lean, choice by choice, in that direction.”
To busy or not to busy? That is the question. Only you have the answer.
Photo Credit: Erin Woody Photography