Emotional Health

Savoring Summer’s Pleasures Year Round

As soon as the end of summer transition occurs, 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 when fall begins again, I suspect they wouldn’t like it nearly so much if three good months of warm, sultry, sweater-less weather had not come first.

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 that during the summer we do things differently? And furthermore, can we make some of these changes last all year long?

Summer means vacation time and vacation is good for us. The fact that most people take their holidays during the summer months, is partly dictated by school schedules—students get most of their vacation time during these months, so families can travel together during 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 of how much students forget over the long holiday 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 since 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 back 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 still common for shops and restaurants to close up 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 has always been more intense and less healthy than our European counterparts, who have shorter work days, longer lunch hours, and more vacation and family leave. 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, such as your own home 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.

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