As I walked through the streets of Sorrento, Italy, with my family on a night in late June, I felt the warm breeze on my skin as we talked about our day and pointed out different places we encountered. As tourists in another country, it is fairly ordinary that we decided to spend our night this way-taking in our surroundings. However, I looked around to see crowds of other people walking, back and forth, past streets of shops and restaurants, with no clear destination. I started to realize this type of leisurely stroll was indeed the destination for the local people. I cannot imagine such a widespread gathering or use of time adopted in the fast paced environment of America. We are so focused on instant gratification or the quickest path to success when a slower and healthier approach to life is the most fulfilling.
The passeggiata, which translates to walking in English, is representative of this cultural difference in Italy. The passeggiata is a leisurely walk or stroll, most often taken in the evening. It marks the end of a work day and serves as a time of sociability and community. This gathering would be similar to the people of Kansas City going out at night and walking around the Plaza back and forth.
We don’t value that wind down time enough for this to be a reality. The International Labour Organization lists Americans as working the longest hours among people in industrialized countries, and according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Institution, job pressure was listed as one of the top five causes of stress in the U.S. We feel that we always have to be working to achieve our goals or move up in the world, when really being overworked does not equate productivity. We exhaust ourselves instead of accepting that we have limitations as human beings.
This emphasis on leisure is so ingrained in Italian culture that when you go to a restaurant they expect you to linger for hours and enjoy not only your meal, but each other’s presence. The first time my family and I ate dinner in Rome, we kept expecting the waiters to rush us out. They never did. Experts say that it is impossible to overstay your welcome at a restaurant in Italy. While Americans may see spending three hours at a restaurant as a waste of time, think about how much better you feel after getting something off your chest or hearing someone relay a funny story from their week. There are some things that we share with each other only as we get more comfortable and actually devote time to building relationships. Like most valuable things in life, relationships are not formed instantaneously.
Adopting a more leisurely pace in your own life is easier said than done. Oftentimes, my schoolwork is the biggest rival to my connections with my family, friends or surroundings. On a Sunday, when I know I have multiple tests the next day, my stress pulls me to shut myself off from other people and spend the day ingraining information into my head as much as I can. This typically leaves me feeling overwhelmed and panicked. By contrast, spending time laughing with my sisters or taking my dog for a walk actually alleviates my stress by filling me with a joy that outweighs my fears. Even taking an hour long break from studying to talk to my friends or my mom reminds me of the constant support and love I have around me.
By taking breaks from a busy life to focus on your well being or the mundane, you are doing yourself a service that will benefit your peace of mind. Yet, part of the reason we, as Americans, have so much difficulty in slowing down our lives is because we are only exposed to this mentality of overworking ourselves for success. Even if most Americans are not able to simplify their lives, that does not mean that you as an individual cannot control the pace or priorities in your life. Making time for family or shared experiences is prioritizing savoring moments. If you make time for that, you may feel less stressed as I did.
Maybe if we placed more value in the simple and shared aspects of life we would take the omnipresent pressure of being successful or always working off our shoulders. If we allowed ourselves the time to appreciate experiences such as a walk with family and no destination, they could serve us more than we might expect. While the experience may not give you some tangible gratification, it can offer you a sense of love and community that we should never undervalue.