Life’s most delicious moments never happen on schedule. They don’t send Google invites. They never text to say they’re running late.
I’m thinking about all of those random times I weaved in and out of crowds at outdoor festivals, sat in Center City cafés, or walked home from work when I just happened upon a friend. A few beats later, I was headed to an after-party hosted by Questlove, dashing in and out of Walnut Street stores buying denim jumpsuits I didn’t need, or headed to a happy hour where I laughed into the night.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, I’m grieving all that is impromptu and impetuous. Gone is the freedom that came from rushing to a spin class I didn’t sign up for but still managed to get in. The bliss that follows a walk-in massage. Will I ever be surprised by life’s serendipitous moments again?
“We’ve lost the beauty of stochasticity” — operating without a plan — said Ravi S. Kudesia, an assistant professor at Temple’s Fox School of Business who studies how organizations benefit from mindfulness training. “There are a lot fewer random acts in our lives. And we are having to be a lot more deliberative in how we go about everything. There isn’t too much joy in that.”
Just one more reason we are moving through life a little bit sadder. But there are things we can do about it.
The three different kinds of spontaneity
It sounds strange, but the truth is spontaneity thrives on routines. That’s because, by definition, a spontaneous act happens outside of the regular plan. And since the pandemic effectively killed off our daily habits, it ruined all manner of spontaneity.
There are three different kinds of spontaneity, Kudesia said. Spontaneity within a routine: bumping into a long-lost friend on the train commute, which is lost because we’ve lost the commute. (And thanks to the coronavirus, we’ve also lost the impulsive hug.) Spontaneity outside of the routine: making Taco Tuesday plans with that friend on a week when you are both free. And — the most exciting form of spontaneity — that which breaks the routine. As in the moment you decide to skip the morning meeting and catch up over coffee.
“Without routines, you don’t have any novelty,” Kudesia said. “There is an excitement that comes from adjusting a routine when something enjoyable pops up.”
The other issue is the coronavirus-generated routines we have developed— like taking online yoga, going to the big box store at 7 a.m. to avoid the crowds, or frequenting our favorite take-out spots on Fridays — emerged from fear. They come with the truth that deviating from this routine can have life-and-death consequences. “Our day-to-day is standardized and lifeless,” Kudesia said.
Why lack of spontaneity causes stress
Right now, Kudesia said, our brains are operating in executive mode all of the time. In this state, we are always on edge, we don’t know what’s going on and we are always anticipating a sudden pivot because we live in a decision-making posture. “Spontaneity is not found there,” Kudesia said. “It’s found when our brains are in free flow. We’ve lost a level of freedom and we are feeling fatigued and exhausted. “
So, can’t we just schedule some downtime? Perhaps. But studies show that penciling in leisure activities takes the fun out of them. Putting a pedicure on your Google calendar triggers the same feelings of planning a meeting with the boss. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does translate to one more item on the to-do list. Our minds, Kudesia says, register this as work. And an off-the-cuff good time that does not make.
How to bring back unexpected joy
Even though a late-2021 return to normalcy seems promising, will I ever truly be comfortable throwing caution to the wind again?
I have to figure something out. It’s been a year since I’ve seen most of my friends. It’s been about that long since I’ve felt the dopamine-rush from an unplanned hangout. And dopamine, says Heather Hersh, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Philly-based consulting firm, Thrive Well-Being, helps our brain feel joy.
So, other than taking up a new wine-tasting hobby, buying too much from Amazon, or eating too much cheese, how can we bring even a little spontaneity back into our lives? Here’s where to start:
Make your friendships less scheduled. You don’t have to schedule a Zoom call every time you want to connect with people you love, Hersch said. Just call them up. Surprise them with a FaceTime. If you have a standing Zoom call with friends, shake it up: Play a game. Send the ingredients for a chocolate chip cookie bake-off. Invite an unexpected guest to join. “By creating spontaneity in other people’s lives you will get some of the same benefits,” Hersh said.
Create random connections. No, you don’t have to start a 20-minute conversation with person in line in front of you at Aldi’s, Hersh said. But smile at a stranger with your eyes. Now is a time to practice acts of kindness: Buy coffee for the person behind you at the Dunkin drive-through. Smile at the cashier. Or let in the driver who needs to merge.
Take a different route. Whether you walking, biking, running, or driving, switch up your path. And while you are out and about, ask yourself: What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What are you smelling? “Use all of your senses to engage in the present,” Hersh said. “And most importantly, put your phone away.”
It’s time to do something different and maybe try some of these techniques. It feels strange planning spontaneity. But maybe it will be worth it, especially if I find myself uttering the magical words: Who knows what will happen?
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