Life, Disrupted

by Jeremy McCarthy

One thing we have learned during the pandemic is the importance of travel. As borders closed and people’s travel options became more restricted, we could see a pent-up yearning from people to go on their next big trip. What is it about travel that we find so alluring? Why do we yearn to get away?

It is not easy to define, but there is something about travel that changes us in positive ways. Some of this is because there are great things to see, experiences to have and people to meet that can only be found by leaving your own town or country and going farther afield. One is reminded of the young George Bailey in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful
Life proclaiming, “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” For George, travel was about experiencing what the world has to offer that he couldn’t find in his own back yard.

But the benefits of travel go much deeper than that. The real value is not discovering something “out there,” but the internal shift
in perspective that comes from breaking out of our normal routine. It is hard for us to evaluate the course of our own lives unless we remove ourselves for a period to look at it from a new vantage point. Nothing can bring us to a state of mindfulness like having our patterns disrupted.

We usually think of mindfulness as a state of “non-judgmental awareness,” not as a state of disruption. But actually, some psychologists have linked the importance of disruption as a key to unlocking mindfulness. Ellen Langer,
for example, a psychology professor from Harvard, describes mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things.” Mindlessness occurs when we tend to follow a routine. Her research experimented with taking people out of their normal patterns and observing how this shift caused them to bring more attention and awareness to daily life.

Likewise, Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, has spent much of his career studying “curiosity.” He promotes the idea that a key facet of mindfulness is having an “open and curious attitude,” something that is far easier to achieve when we take ourselves out of our normal environments. The greatest benefits come from experiences that, by virtue of their uncertainty and novelty, force us to bring our full awareness to the present moment.

During this age of pandemic, travel experiences have been more difficult to come by. But the opportunity for disruptive experiences that take us out of our comfort zones may be more available than ever. Much of the disruption caused by the pandemic has been negative, distancing us from loved ones and adversely affecting career and earning potential. But there is positive disruption too, when drastic change forces us to reconsider what is most important, to prioritize our health and loved ones, and to experiment with new places and activities that we might not have otherwise explored.

This idea of “positive disruption” is important during these times of travel restrictions because it encourages us to consider alternative ways to bring more mindfulness into our lives. Of course, it is easier to disrupt our normal patterns when we can remove ourselves entirely by taking a big trip. But with a little effort, novel experiences that disrupt your routine in a positive way can be found anywhere, even in your own backyard.

Here are a few ideas for bringing more mindfulness into your life by creating some positive disruption:

1. Take up a new hobby or activity or
take a break from a hobby or activity that has consumed much of your time in recent months.

2. Explore a new neighborhood in your hometown. Try a restaurant you have never been to. Shop at stores that you don’t normally go to. Take a walk in a park that is outside of your normal geography.

3. Talk to strangers. Or invite people to dinner that you don’t normally socialize with. At work, have lunch with a colleague you don’t know very well. In most parts of the world, you don’t have to go very far to meet interesting people from cultures very different from your own.

During times of restriction, we can re-create the benefits of travel by bringing more novelty and uncertainty into our lives. Disruption doesn’t have to be negative. A good life is a life that is often disrupted.