I returned yesterday from a mission trip to Haiti with my church (Psychologists also have lives and go on adventures), and while I'm still processing much of it, a few things have become more clear to me.
Focus matters. For the week I was there I didn't have my phone, didn't have to-do lists, and generally only had two things to do at any given time: whatever task we were working on (painting a house, delivering goats, etc) and just loving on people. That's it. I was free to just be in and enjoy the present moment. The idea of being mindful isn't earth shattering but it was an earth-shatteringly distraction-free environment. No sounds off in the distance other than chickens or the generator, no stress of having to be somewhere at a certain time or accomplishing a pressured task, no perception of great responsibility or burden, no trying to manage what people thought of me. I hadn't really been able to see just how much I had been overwhelmed and distracted until it was all a continent away. Just being, doing, and loving.
Coincidentally (or not) I had picked up Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson at the airport on the way to Haiti, and in it Hanson emphasizes how our American consumer culture more persistently presents stressful or pressured situations than in third world or earlier cultures. We're always striving, always trying, always trying to make things just a little better for our families and selves by accomplishing or gaining things. Hanson talks about how this puts our body in a reactive state rather than a state where we can enjoy our experiences and cultivate gratitude. I'm oversimplifying here; he expands on how really experiencing and appreciating more positive moments changes brain connectivity, but I'll just say I recommend the book highly.
I used to think about how people would just sit out on their porches in the evenings, drinking tea and chatting with friends and think of it as a kind of therapy. But part of the therapy is in the actual porch sitting itself - sitting back and reclining, taking in the moments, not worrying about last week or next year, but just allowing yourself to take in the experience.