I recently returned from a trip to Europe. While I was there, sitting in a cafe, on a cobblestone street in a midsized European town, I had one of those "ah hah" moments.
Surrounded by European families, couples and singles, I watched them chatting, reading, sipping drinks. Something looked different, strange. They weren't in a hurry, they were calmer, more peaceful, much more so than ... me! I couldn't take my eyes off them. Wherever we went I searched, I questioned. What is so different in their lifestyle?
Well, the answer to that question is surely complex. It's probably what many have said before: less consumerism, less work hours, a simpler lifestyle. And, the answer to why Americans are more stressed has also been largely hypothesized: more consumerism driving longer work hours, less social contact, etc.
But, all of these theories are a bit esoteric. You can't put your finger on how they really play out in the day-ins and day-outs of our lives. So, when I returned home I began calling colleagues, reading research and social commentaries, asking friends: How does all this affect our daily lives, moods, and relationships? This is what I've come up with so far.
In general, Europeans have less than we do. Their cars and houses are smaller. Electricity is fairly expensive so they don't have as many electrical gadgets. Magazines, billboards, and advertising aren't as visible as they are here.
Adults and children have a two-hour lunch break to eat together and rest. Eating and socializing aren't squeezed in between activities; they are the activity.
In America, the family dinner used to be a nightly "don't miss" ritual. Now, we are all so busy that families rarely have time to sit down together for a meal. A psychiatric expert in eating disorders told me she believes that meal time isn't nearly as nutritionally nourishing as it is psychologically nourishing. It is a time for families and couples to be together and to process how their day went.
When we don't have this, food takes on a different role than sustenance. In fact, as the number of meals that American families eat together has decreased, eating disorders in teenage and adult women have increased. In essence, people are emotionally hungry for this time together. Meal time is perhaps more important than all of the other activities that we forsake it for.
Social commentary suggests the decline of the American family began with the invention of the television. A colleague believes that the decline of the American family actually began when families started owning more than one television. Think of it this way: when there is only one TV in a home the family sits together to watch shows. They may not be talking, but at least they are together.
Furthermore, they may argue over what is being watched, stirring debate, listening skills, even passing on family values. Most importantly, they have to compromise about what is being watched. If there is more than one television in a home and if someone doesn't like what is being watched, they can just go watch what they want in the next room. Sure, this temporarily decreases arguing, but may impact relationships later in life when concession is needed to work out problems.
Over the decades American homes have become larger and larger. More children have video games and computers in their rooms. Research shows that American children are getting lonelier. Innately, we are pack animals. Does our increasing house size, and the individual activities that we do in our own rooms, create a metaphor of less psychological closeness and a sense of isolation?
Children spend hours each day entranced with electronic gadgets such as Playstation and the Internet. They race from activity to activity. Maybe they come to expect a lifestyle of stimulation. The problem is that when you rely on constant stimulation you sacrifice internal speculation, soul searching and imagination.
Adults have their own form of constant stimulation: consumerism. We've been raised to work hard to get what we want. But, have we lost our ability to tolerate not getting what we want?
We are a wealthy nation, and most of us are luckier than we will ever realize. We think we "need" things that others only dream of. Research shows that Americans' emotional health declines with each decade. Ironically, we might all be less stressed and happier if we didn't "need" so much.
I'm not criticizing our country. Let me assure you I wouldn't live anywhere else. And, surely, every country has its own set of problems. It's more that I fear that things precious to our way of life are slowly withering away. Things more important than anything we own.
Family car trips today often consist of kids sitting in the back seat playing video games by themselves or listening to a CD on their Walkman. Thirty-something years ago, family car trips for me meant listening to my parents sing old cowboy songs and playing "I spy" with my sisters. I want my kids to know all the words to "Dusty Saddles in the Old Corral," like I do. Simply, I want back what we used to have. Time.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.