It was getting dark when I hit the first riffle of my trip down Utah’s Green River in a canoe. My plan was to set out while it was cool and log some mileage before nightfall, but dusk came on quicker than I thought. Because I’d been in a rush to launch, my gear wasn’t tied down very well. I had trouble reading the water in the fading light, hit some shoals, and barely came out upright. Shaking, I pulled over to camp on a scruffy pile of gravel near the highway for a night of bad sleep and excoriating self-recrimination.
It all seemed a fitting metaphor for the way I’d been hurtling through life. In the previous two years, I’d written a book, recorded a dozen podcast episodes, zombie-marched through a 14-city book tour, gotten sick a few times, and missed more of my kids’ dance recitals and cross-country meets than I care to remember. Hoping for recovery and insight, I’d embarked on an ambitious vacation: a 120-mile solo paddle with a tight deadline for a resupply and another tight deadline for a water taxi to pick me up at the end. A vacation with deadlines! The insight, at least, was becoming obvious: what I really needed was to slow down.
I’m not alone in my overreach. Most of us have a hard time refusing to set goals. In this age of 5G hyperconnectivity, performative workaholism, personalized coaching, biohacking, Strava posturing, and supplement swilling, we’ve internalized the imperative to optimize every aspect of our lives. We feel lost without a plan, guilty for slouching, regretful of every injury, scuttled workout, and to-do item left unticked. Even our so-called leisure activities require frantic preparations and logistical ops reminiscent of Caesar’s army.
We don’t just have fear of missing out, we have dread of slacking off. It’s telling that so many of us push to the edge of our endurance in order to feel good about ourselves. We’ve equated recreational difficulty and social-media posts of summits with self-worth, and that’s a precarious and unsustainable place to be.
So how is putting our heads down and suffering in the name of glory working out for us? Not so great. Americans are, by and large, fried. Depression and anxiety rates are soaring, we’re experiencing high levels of loneliness, and we’re not engaged in as many community activities as we used to be.
Anne Helen Petersen, a 38-year-old journalist and long-distance runner in Missoula, Montana, remembers the days when her college pals graduated and became ski bums for a while or worked odd jobs in national parks. Now, she says, that’s rare. Younger millennials and Gen Zers, anxious over the gig economy and helicoptered by their parents, fear veering too far off script into experiences that offer unquantifiable personal gains. The result? Malaise, disaffection, disconnection.
Last year the World Health Organization expanded its entry on burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, defining it as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by feeling depleted, cynical, and unmotivated. Many experts also understand it as a concept of charging too hard without adequate recovery in other spheres of life, including parenting, exercise, and passion-based volunteering.
Leisure pursuits used to be about, well, leisure. Running, for example, emerged as a recreational pastime in the sixties and seventies largely as a way to bliss out, according to Princeton historian Dylan Gottlieb. By the early eighties, though, “running, and marathon training in particular, dovetailed with the same habits that yuppies honed in their white-collar jobs. Personal discipline, delayed gratification, obsessive time management, constant self-analysis, long-range planning: they were just as vital to race training as they were to arbitrage or corporate litigation,” Gottlieb writes in Public Seminar magazine.
The alpha-dog self-optimization trend has now permeated youth sports, too. Some coaches admit that they’re complicit in creating burnout. “For many sports, there is no longer an off-season, no time off, competitions all year long, nonstop, and that’s trickled down to kids,” says Ken Vick, the CEO of Velocity Sports Performance. “The demands are ridiculous.”
Millennials are helping us understand burnout in a new way, because they’re insisting—in their insistently millennial fashion—that we recognize its impact and the urgency of learning how to back off, both in the workplace and in the rest of our lives. For many of them, years of working hard has failed to deliver measurable gains in wages, affordable real estate, or even job security. And they are not happy about that. In an article that went viral last year on Buzzfeed News, Petersen wrote, “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are.”
Of course, every recent generation is at least passingly familiar with burnout. The sometimes inspiring, sometimes soul-sucking rally toward achievement, self-reliance, and optimal efficiency has been dogging us since the dawn of industrialization. As early as 1807, Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us.” He preferred to leave it behind, walking some 180,000 miles in his lifetime across alp, glade, field, and fen.
The overburdening of the individual can exact a real cost on both physical and emotional health. As sports psychologist Michael Gervais bluntly puts it: “The way the human organism responds to chronic stress is fatigue, staleness, and even death.” He points to the effects of the stress hormone cortisol, a get-up-and-go neuropeptide that is adaptive in spurts but should not remain elevated all day.
When we’re pushing hard for an extended period of time, we do indeed get stuff done. We pass the test, win the race, meet our deadlines, make money for shareholders. But as scientists are now learning, those who are exposed to prolonged stress are more likely to develop dense arteries, cellular inflammation, and unraveling of the telomeres, those protective casings at the end of a cell’s chromosomes.
Even if we’re incredibly fit, we can inflict collateral damage on two of our most health-promoting systems, sleep and relationships, warns Rob Kent de Grey, a social neuroscientist at the University of Utah. “One way or another, there’s a cost to overdoing it,” he says. “You’ll eventually suffer performance decrements, and you don’t always get to choose where the decrements are.”
The relentless pursuit of achievement is also counterproductive to many of our values, says Christie Aschwanden, a former nordic ski racer and the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. “High-achieving people almost uniformly don’t prioritize sleep,” she says, “and they are kidding themselves, because that’s the single most important thing you need to be good at anything.” Researchers at Harvard demonstrated that adequate nighttime sleep significantly improves motor-skills learning and memory consolidation. And a 2014 review of 113 studies found that sleep deprivation likely reduces motivation and endurance, while a study from Australia found that a lack of shut-eye increases tension and worsens mood before competition.
A 2014 report from researchers in Sweden concluded that people experiencing symptoms of burnout had poorer neural connections between their brain’s amygdala—or threat center—and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate emotions. Translation: they let stressful events get the best of them. Another study from Sweden, published in 2015, found that chronic occupational stress accelerated aging in the medial prefrontal cortex, whose function is critical for decision-making, judgment, and self-concept.
To put it simply, we’re becoming jerks and prematurely aging ourselves. Burnout and exhaustion, Aschwanden says, prevent us from being present, tuning into the needs of our own bodies, and enjoying the people around us. Relying on technology like sleep-tracking apps may only stress us out more. “You’ll become one of those people road-raging on the way to yoga class,” she says.
The good news is that while elite coaching may have contributed to the burnout epidemic, it also points to a solution. “We spend more time now talking about recovery,” says Gervais, who has coached amateurs, Olympians, and, increasingly, burned-out executives. “To go the distance, to do extraordinary things, nobody does it alone, and nobody does it when deeply fatigued.” It’s easier to prevent burnout than to treat it, he says. But we shouldn’t be stress avoidant, because it’s stress that drives us to perform and to excel. The trick is to toggle between what Gervais calls “running to the edge of our capacity” and recovering on a daily basis, with emphasis on the daily.
Two-time Olympic volleyball silver medalist Nicole Davis learned this the hard way. After the London Olympics, as she was training for the 2013 professional season, she says, “I would take stress home with me and bring it to others.” After a poor practice session, she was more impatient, grumpier, and quicker to anger. Ultimately, she had to acknowledge that her emotional state affected her performance back on the court.
“Fear and anxiety are a wet blanket for passion,” she says. So she worked with Gervais to “decouple my identity from just being an athlete” and to reexamine her core values, including her relationship with the sport. It made her realize that attitude is a big component of stress. “We are firing on a lot of cylinders all the time,” she says. “Fatigue is inevitable. Burnout is not.”
Both Gervais and Davis, who now coach together, believe that mindfulness meditation can play a major role in daily recuperation, along with sleep, nutrition, and hydration. A combination of these basics, they say, can apply to anyone at risk for depletion in work or sport. “Meditation,” Davis says, “creates more presence and a lengthened perception of time.”
Who doesn’t want a more expanded sense of time? In fact, it appears that for many of us there’s an inverse relationship between scheduled productivity and bliss. Not that we can’t be in a flow state at work or while exercising, but it happens despite the striving, not because of it. Bliss occurs when we are emotionally at ease, in the moment, and well rested.
But it wasn’t until I read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by another disaffected millennial, Jenny Odell, that I realized that perhaps the recovery experts are asking only part of the question. Rather than attending to our own optimization, what would happen if we attended to something else altogether—say, each other? Or the natural world? Thoreau suggested as much in his famous essay “Walking”: “But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise … as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
Reorienting in a meaningful way requires a fairly radical upending of capitalist norms, not to mention our relationship with social media and information itself, but Odell, a Bay Area artist and an art and art-history lecturer at Stanford University, says it’s worth it. Even simply loafing about outdoors, with no goals in mind, is “an act of political resistance,” she writes. “I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”
Odell says she does this by wandering around and looking, slowly, at birds and plants she’s learning to identify. It’s not that she isn’t busy, and she hasn’t sworn off Twitter, but she also takes three-day retreats several times a year—by herself and unplugged—to minimalist rental cabins in the mountains. “I call them hermit trips,” she says. “The whole point is that they help me maintain a sense of interiority.” The deep thinking that follows can help drive her creativity. She finds it funny that apps like AllTrails rate spots by scenery over natural history, biodiversity, and general loafability. “I like to look for metaphors in nature, and those are not in an AllTrails review,” she says. (For more on how Odell does nothing, see this story.)
After sustaining a couple of injuries from overtraining, runner Anne Helen Petersen no longer clocks her workouts or races, although she still enjoys participating in organized events. “I’ll track distance, but not while I’m running,” she says. Without her Garmin, she says, she’s gotten better at sensing how her body feels, and she’s stronger because of it. She takes her earbuds out and listens to the sounds of the mountains instead.
There are lessons that don’t come easily for many of us raised in late-stage industrialism. One day last spring at an artist retreat, my neighbor, Robbie Q. Telfer, asked me if I wanted to join him for a short hike near Georgia’s Chattahoochee Hills. I glanced from my computer screen to the pulsing burst of springtime outside. I considered the number of pages I had left to write and the number of days I had left to write them. I sighed and turned him down.
Telfer, whose performance poetry often centers on the natural world, came back many hours later looking very pleased with himself. On the trail, he’d stopped to study a map when a retired schoolteacher sidled up to him and asked, “Would you like to see a pond full of baby salamanders?” Uhhh, OK? The pond turned out to be full of amphibians of all kinds, and there were sci-fi carnivorous plants and two killdeer having sex. He was giddy recounting all this to me. When I asked how far he walked, Telfer looked wounded: “I don’t consciously record my mileage. My main rules are to let the experience unfold and don’t get lost.” He and the teacher have since become pen pals.
Science tells us that harnessing a spirit of play helps us bounce back from life’s stressors and put disappointments into manageable perspective.
“We take ourselves so seriously,” says Lynn Barnett-Morris, associate professor in the department of recreation, sports, and tourism at the University of Illinois. “Playful people have more resilience”—because they know how to find amusement, defuse stressors, and solve problems creatively. “We think playfulness can be an antidote to burnout,” she says. “Things roll off you.”
As Telfer, a fan of nonlinear creativity, explained it to me, “If I see a path going off, I’ll take it.”
I decided I needed to go look for some nonlinearity. So a few weeks after my trip on the Green River, I asked social neuroscientist Rob Kent de Grey to join me for a relaxed hike in Utah’s Wasatch foothills. The 34-year-old postdoc knows a thing or two about the trade-offs we make, sometimes subconsciously, in the push to achieve. He spent his graduate-school years in thrall to a looming corkboard in his office, on which he tabulated the 30 research projects he was working on in various stages of completion. While collecting data, publishing, and studying for his exams, his immune system fizzed out, his relationships faltered, and the only time he could find for pleasure reading was while brushing his teeth.
For a full sensory wake-up, we decided to start our hike in Red Butte Garden and gradually make our way toward the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. A sign on the arboretum’s Floral Walk reminded us to notice microclimates by paying attention to how the trail’s sunny spots felt on our skin. In the cool fall morning, they felt great. That made me breathe more deeply. The toads and birds were riotous, including a hummingbird that darted around a red yucca. We leaned over to inhale a silver sands lavender shrub and admire blue globe thistles as tall as our armpits.
But as two people often do when they’re out for a hike, we soon forgot to smell things and landed deep in conversation. And that’s OK, Kent de Grey assured me. Social connection is perhaps the most important factor for happiness. He was geeking out explaining what he’s learned about how psychosocial factors influence health and disease. The upshot is that when we allow ourselves to wander a bit, we become better at aligning our everyday actions with who we are and who we want to be, and we boost our cellular health at the same time.
“Shall we sit for a bit?” I asked, feeling a desire to shore up my telomeres.
“Yes!” he said. The bench was high off the ground, and we swung our legs like little kids. A hawk circled overhead. The scent of sage wafted from the hot slopes. I felt like I was sitting in the sweet spot of stimulation, not too much and not too little.
Kent de Grey passed me a water bottle and adjusted his Ute Proud cap.
“We’re not built for unrelenting stressors,” he said. “What the science points to is this: the very act of doing nothing is important.”
We stood up, stretched, and started out again, in a random direction. I was liking it. I could see what Wordsworth and Thoreau knew, and what millennials like Odell are rediscovering—that cruising around at the pace of human locomotion may be the perfect riposte to modern life.
When we want to feel powerful, it’s good to remember that humans are the only striding bipedal mammals in the world.
This, right here, is our superpower.
Contributing editor Florence Williams is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.