fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


How can we keep the special nature of summer all year long?

Summer officially ended yesterday, and as this transition occurs each year I know it will not be long before I am feeling nostalgic for its pleasures. Though many people say they love the change of seasons, I suspect they wouldn’t like the transition nearly so much if three good months of warm, sultry, sweater-less weather had not come before the colder months. But is it the weather that makes summer so special? While there’s no doubt it’s a key ingredient, is warm weather the essential magic? Or is it the things we do differently that make summer unique? That said, can we make some of these changes last all year?

Summer means vacation time and vacation is good for us. The fact that most people take their holidays in the summer months is partly dictated by school schedules—students get most of their time off in June, July and August, so families can travel together in summer. While some of this originated with the agrarian calendar, urban schools used to run year round, (though wealthy families tended to take their children away during the hottest weeks anyway). The Memorial Day to Labor Day calendar resulted when an effort was made to standardize the school year, (though teachers complain about how much students forget over the long break and changes have been made in charter schools, in particular, to shorten the length of the summer hiatus.)

Many businesses are forced to slow down during parts of the summer because so many employees are away, and the people they do business with are also gone. Even many psychotherapists are gone in August—a tradition dating directly to Freud, who liked to go hiking in the Alps. Since he went away, so did all his students, patients and protégés. Of course, across Europe, it is still common for shops and restaurants to close for an entire month, though this has been changing as business becomes more “globalized.”

It would be much better if the influence went the other way. The work lives of Americans have always been more intense and less healthy than their European counterparts, who have shorter workdays, longer lunch hours, and more vacation and family leave. And the American worker’s life has only gotten worse. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote this week in The New York Times:

“For many Americans, life has become all competition all the time. Workers across the socioeconomic spectrum, from hotel housekeepers to surgeons, have stories about toiling 12- to 16-hour days (often without overtime pay) and experiencing anxiety attacks and exhaustion. Public health experts have begun talking about stress as an epidemic.”

Many people have to work several jobs to make ends meet, and being middle class no longer guarantees that you can afford the basics that your parents once did, like a place to live and an adequate education for your children.

Besides the stress put on family life because Mom and Dad are both working, and working long hours, a vicious cycle has begun in which parents are desperate for their children to achieve more. Aiming for the “middle” or “good enough” no longer seems OK in a world in which getting a good job seems so uncertain. Children’s lives are as high-pressured and over-scheduled as their parents’. Gone are the days of causal play after school, which has been replaced by competitive sports, tutoring, and special lessons, all of which put further time and financial pressure on frantic parents. The film, The Race to the Top, now available on Netflix, describes in detail the toxic toll this is taking on our kids and families.

Summer, then, is often the only time when families are all together in a low-key environment, spending time together in a non-stressful way. The contrast is no longer between eating indoors or outdoors but between night and day (literally — there are families that don’t see one another in daylight hours during the rest of the year). But family time is one of the things that researchers in the field of positive psychology have identified as a key to happy living. Again, it’s not just the sunshine that makes summer special.

And yet, that time outdoors is good for you. The Atlantic just published a report by James Hamblin on the new field of “ecotherapy,” which essentially is just what it sounds like — it promotes “nature-based exercises intended to address both mental and physical health.” I have always felt that walking or running outdoors was “better” somehow, and I have been dismayed at the proliferation of indoor gyms and spas that have become standard in recent years at resorts in beautiful, bucolic and/or exotic resorts. “Science” is now confirming the obvious, according to Hamblin:

“Researchers in the United Kingdom found that when people did physical activities in natural settings instead of “synthetic environments,” they experienced less anger, fatigue, and sadness. A 2015 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that walking in a park reduced blood flow to a part of the brain that the researchers claimed was typically associated with brooding. And in one of the most famous studies on the topic, patients recovering from gallbladder surgery healed faster and with fewer complications when their room looked out on trees rather than a wall.”

We are naturally more prone to spend time outdoors in the summer months when the weather is good, but that doesn’t mean it has to stop when the summer ends. As with time off from work, relaxation time, and family time, the outdoors may be more challenging in the rest of the year, but not impossible. With all these aspects of healthy summer activity, try analyzing the parts that are most valuable to you and spend some time thinking about how to arrange “non-summer” simulations. For example, I love going to the beach but I rarely go in the water and don’t tan so why do I like it so much? I realized, much as I liked the sand and the sound of the water, what I really liked most was the several uninterrupted hours of reading. Couldn’t I give myself “permission” to sit around my apartment for three hours reading without the ruse of “going to the beach?” OK, still better on the beach, but I learned that I don’t have to wait nine months to really get lost in a good book.

Similarly, some people love barbecues because of hamburgers and hot dogs and paper napkins, but wouldn’t “let” themselves be so casual indoors. Why not? Fun and casual dining need not be restricted to the summer months. You also can invite people to a barbecue spontaneously without worrying too much about the food. But you can do that in the winter, too. Having casual get-togethers can be less stressful and more fun for the guests as well as the hosts. People are happy just to see one another, which is what they do more of during the summer. Think about the things that make summer special to you: slowing down, less pressure, time outdoors, being with family, or all of the above. Whether it’s once a week, once a month, or ideally, in some way a little more every day, find a way to keep summer in in your life all year long.

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