Are we losing touch with the most simple human pursuits that nurture mind and body? In an age when every new technological commodity seems to isolate and enrage, there are tangible ways of reconnecting both with other people and yourself. So consider setting aside a part of your day for the following activities, including a kip – you’ve earned it.
People used to talk about the art of conversation, which is just that – an art. It’s a thing of beauty with transformative powers. Conversation can heal, move, enrich or amuse. But only if you do it well. You need some give and take. You need to allow silences to be understood, to read the other person’s face and the shifting timbre of their voice – to take note of that rising current of emotion cracking their speech. There’s another wise old saying: “A problem shared is a problem halved.” That can be true too. As we share our burdens they can lose their weight and disappear on the wind. This is why health professionals worry that modern life – with its drumbeat of self-checkouts, payment by app, online banking and social media – deprives people of those moments in a day when they can spark up a conversation. Think of old people, people who aren’t in relationships and people who are new in town: people who are placed on conversation diets by how the world functions. Then you realise that loneliness blights lives and affects mental health. To be gentler, to feel less tossed around by the tides of life, all we need is a bloody good chat; to look someone in the eye and talk.
Why step out on a cold, wet night to attend a talk when you can download and listen to one from the comfort of your own home? It’s because our congregation adds to the sense of purpose. Whether it’s a PechaKucha (the format devised by Tokyo-based kda architects that restricts presentations to exactly six minutes and 40 seconds) or a long, searching reminiscence, talks have an important role to play in our lives. When we come together and listen, engage and spar, we’re fulfilling something human.
Although a seminar on Meret Oppenheim’s fur teacup, the principles of hyperbolic geometry or the origins of the majolica tile might not change the world, the tradition of public discussion is fundamental. The history of our democracies has been formed by curated talks in French Enlightenment salons and debate in the coffee houses of Vienna. To sit among an assembly of willing participants and listen to an expert is nearly always worth the effort. There’s an uncanny alchemy to any audience. It’s as though the physical act of turning up with dozens of others sharpens the mind and compels us to concentrate. We enjoy the hush before events begin, the tension of who might ask a question and the energy of a lively argument. And no matter how heated a debate might get, a face-to-face spat almost always has more humour, accountability and good old manners than any anonymous online storm.
Much has been penned by prominent writers on the importance of keeping a diary. To the literary species, the diary is a record for anecdotes, images and overheard conversations to keep in store for future works. But writers aren’t the only ones to recognise the benefits of jotting things down.
It helps to boost memory and improves sleep and mood. We work and live better in a clean and tidy environment and the same goes for our mind: it functions better once it has been put in order. Writing is an important exercise that helps us process old thoughts and memories and allows the brain to focus on new ones. It’s therapeutic too.
Most days are relatively uneventful, so writing about them might seem frivolous. But to make sense of things we need to find words for them. Don’t get fixated on finding something worthy of writing about: often it’s only by beginning to write that our brains will reveal what they want to deal with. Don’t overthink it. Just buy yourself a good-looking notebook, something you’ll want to pick up, and set a few moments aside every day to commit those fleeting thoughts to paper.
I never like anything that I draw. All of my subjects – even the most elegant life model – invariably end up with a funny nose and Habsburg jaw. But I haven’t let this stop me from making it a regular habit: you don’t have to be a great draftsman (or woman) to reap the rewards of putting pencil to paper.
How much satisfaction you’ll glean from the act depends on the expectations you bring to it. If you’ve taken up drawing because you want to be the next Rembrandt, things might not work out. But if, like me, you’re the kind of person who gains a lot from slowing down, drawing will do you the world of good. Its power lies in how absorbing it is: sketching triggers the same brain activity that occurs during meditation. Focusing on what you’re drawing enables you to shut out any external stress. It puts a metaphorical cushion between you and your thoughts.
When you’re done, if your sketch is good enough to earn a place on your fridge then great. But if it ends up in the bin that’s fine too. So go on, sharpen those pencils. Remember: it’s not about drawing comparisons.
Napping can be a mercurial endeavour. It seems, from the outset, deceptively simple: close your eyes, drift off for a targeted period of time, and wake up refreshed and renewed. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former US first lady, swore by napping just before she had an official event to attend or an address to give. Albert Einstein and Salvador Dalí famously pioneered “micro-naps” – falling asleep while holding an object that would slip from their grasp and clang to the floor, waking them up in the process. Those split-second snoozes sharpen the mind, they said.
Advice abounds about the perfect nap. How long should it be? Some say no more than 20 minutes, others say no shorter than 90 minutes, to allow a full cycle of light and deep sleep. When should you take it? Anytime before 15.00, reports suggest; any later will mess up your night-time sleep. Is it good for you? Yes. Is it bad if you don’t nap? No.
The myriad blueprints and nap-related protocols should be taken with a light touch: there is little point in settling down for your allotted snooze only to find that your mind is alive with whether or not you are doing it right. Naps are at their best when they’re unintentional: why feel bad when you drift off at the beach or decide to carve up your lunchtime with a short, soft sleep? Choosing to spend a sliver of your day on closing your eyes and getting some rest is a perfectly worthy occupation: why confine it just to the night-time?