The best way to succeed at study and work includes some play. People need to recharge and relax. I like more free time than I need, you understand, but everybody needs some time to relax. So be kind to yourself, and find your sunlight.
The first part of finding your sunlight is recreation and recharging. These are the activities that help people relax and regain energy. To be clear, people do a lot of pointless and stupid things in the pursuit of fun and relaxation. Most of those aren't actually relaxing. In fact, a lot of supposedly-recreational activities bring a lot of stress, distress, pain, and heartache. I'm not a Puritan, but I do think we're way better avoiding all that garbage. In fact, everyone around us benefits when we avoid doing stupid things. Sometimes we cause other people's suffering. For example, suppose people seek relaxation in alcohol. No problem. Suppose people pass out drunk four times a week, every week, for years. Big Problems. Damaged relationships, lost jobs, and liver disease could be just the start. It could include a drunk driving accident that kills someone. Sometimes we cause each other's suffering.
So what is recreation? It's different for different people. You can recognize it when you do it, though, in several ways. It's fun. It lets you slow down and stop rushing around for a bit. For example, I played indoor intramural volleyball some in grad school. No trophies, no fans, no prizes, no hoopla. Just enough structure (days, times, net set-up, and rules) to organize. I was on the English department team, and we played the chemistry team one day. We only had three people, not enough according to the rules. The chemistry team were very concerned with the rules, with writing down a victory by forfeit. Our team captain said, “You win. We lose. Now, do you want to play?” The chemistry team leader was suspicious, as if we were trying to cheat somehow. Our guy had to repeat himself at least twice, patiently.
The chemistry team eventually agreed. Six of them trotted onto the court, while the other three prepared to rotate in as per the rules. The three of us looked at them across the net a moment. Finally, my friend said that we'd happily take them on as the terrible three, but would anyone like to play on this side to make a more enjoyable game? Eventually one guy joined us to make a team of four.
I gently suggest that most of the chemistry team were not approaching the activity as recreation. They'd shown up, apparently not to play and have fun, but to write down a victory in a competition that truly didn't matter. Then most were ready to rush off to the next thing even though we had the net and court for another 53 minutes. Most of them loosened up, though. We had a good game, especially when another guy switched sides and a woman on our team who had lost track of time turned up.
Another good example for me is gardening. I don't have to rush. I don't have to be anywhere else just then. I can take care of the plants. I can just observe them, or close my eyes and feel the sun on my face. The bees that come to the flowers aren't scary. I know they won't bother me unless we stumble into each other. The vast living world breathes together. I feel connected to the world, or less like a separate isolated bit and more part of it.
Another part of recreation, then, may be to recognize that we're part of something bigger. We're part of the larger world. My problems stop being problems for a little while because I'm focused on being here now. If that sounds like mindfulness meditation, it at least has a lot in common. One goal of mindfulness mediation is to learn to focus on being aware of the moment and accepting it. One psychologist, Dr. Karen Wegela, say that people practicing mindfulness meditation “become more present with ourselves just as we are.” She goes on to say that this “shows us glimpses of our inherent wisdom and teaches us” how to stop creating more suffering trying to escape unpleasantness.
It's worth noting that mindfulness meditation has roots in Buddhism, but modern Western psychology and psychiatry have found a lot of value in it as well. An article by Dr. Edo Shonin points out that it's probably the fastest-growing area of psychological research right now. Dr. Shonin and the other writers explore the quality of the research. They found many studies with positive results, but a fair chunk of those results relied on self-reported data. (It's tricky to measure how someone feels without them telling you as part of the answer.) I take this as a good sign. Scientists are finding a lot of real value in mindfulness, but they continue to cautiously check facts and assumptions.
Mindfulness meditation, then, could be recreation for you. It could at least help you recognize the feeling of calm focus and moment of peace that good recreation provides. This leads right to the second feature of finding your sunlight, which is to ground us.
Here's what I mean by grounding. People who are grounded or centered are calmer, with a core of strength to draw from in stressful times. I can't help but think of this in terms of martial arts. The centered martial artist is stable on his or her feet, capable of movement as needed in any direction. There's an alert calmness. It's a strength. Emotionally grounded, centered people have the same calm for the same reasons: they can take whatever actions they need to with a minimum of energy. Good recreation helps us regain that centered-ness. We regain our balance, emotionally and spiritually.
Psychologists talk about mental and emotional balance as resilience. This is the ability to deal with a crisis and return to a calmer state. For example, an American Psychological Association article “The Road to Resilience” offers 10 ways to build resilience. They include self-discovery, keeping things in perspective, maintaining a hopeful outlook, taking care of yourself, and mediation. Huh, finding things that help you feel grounded helps you get through the tough times. What helps you re-center?
Finally, recreation reminds us why we work so hard. Good recreation is enjoyable living, and it reminds us that there are purposes for what we do. Did you work well today? Did you make progress towards your goals? Stay focused on tasks and accomplish them? You did all that for your future self, to make things better in the future. Well done! But that's a bit abstract. Imagining a better future is fantastic, but you worked today. There should be some reward today. A bit of healthy recreation after the progress makes it easier to imagine the futures that we hope for.
Maybe this all seems a bit theoretical so far. After all, what does it have to do with college student success? College students, maybe in particular community college students, tend to be really busy. You may be taking classes full time, working full time, and raising a family (full time). By my count, that's three full time jobs, and you don't get any more hours in a day than anyone else. On the one hand, people may try to cut out almost all recreation to get all the work done. It feels virtuous and temporary, but people need some time to recharge. Nursing students that I've spoken with, in particular, seem more likely than others to see sacrificing all recreation as a noble necessity. If you skip all healthy recreation, though, you may forget why you're working. You might get totally discouraged and want to quit from less resilience. Or students may choose a lot of unhealthy outlets.
Whatever you're doing, make sure it's healthy and benefits you. This makes it better for others, as well. When you make progress towards your goals, you also earn a little time for healthy recreation. You wouldn't deny anyone else a few minutes to recharge and re-center. Be as kind to yourself. Everyone else in contact with you benefits, too, since you can bring your calmest, most stable self to life's many challenges. The more you succeed in college and your career, the more value you bring to your community too. So find your sunlight for the rest of us, too.
“Road to Resilience.” American Psychological Association. 2018. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
Shonin, Edo et al. “Mindfulness in psychology - a breath of fresh air?” British Psychological Journal. Vol 28, 2015, pp 28-31. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/january-2015/mindfulness-psychology-breath-fresh-air.
Wegela, Karen. “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness is important; how do we develop it?” Psychology Today. 19 Jan. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-courage-be-present/201001/how-practice-mindfulness-meditation
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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