The 6 Skills You Can't Live Without

Despite all the classes we take, degrees we get, documentaries we watch, most of us never get the word about a remedy as key to health and happiness as watching cholesterol or eating the right food. It's the invisible cure for a host of our problems, from stress to obesity to loneliness.

Stanford Medical School's Mark Cullen found out what happens to people who ignore this over-the-counter tonic. He found in his research that successful men were reduced to feeling "they were nothing," once they walked out the door to retirement. They had no worth beyond job performance, and they were missing a resource they couldn't live without. "They had no leisure skills," said Cullen. They didn't know how to live. Single-minded focus on production left them unequipped to enjoy the life they theoretically worked for. Many died early deaths.

Leisure skills? What's that? Microwave popcorn popping? Isometric finger exercises for the remote? That's probably what many of these execs would have thought and had a good guffaw over in the myopia of their working days. That attitude doomed them to a life without living.

When you don't have leisure skills, what do you do? Flip on the TV. The average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, reports Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author of "Finding Flow" and the pioneering authority on optimal experience. A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems. A recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that men who spend 23 or more hours a week sitting, watching TV or glued to car seats, had a 64 percent greater chance of fatal heart disease than those who only logged 11 hours or less per week on their butts. That could well be a bigger problem, since some 78 percent of Americans over age 30 don't get any exercise, according to Census Bureau statistics and Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland.

The root of the problem? Missing leisure skills, something we don't know we need. The assumption is that leisure is a vegetative condition, and therefore there are no requirements aside from batteries for the remote. But it's actually the exact opposite. As Aristotle saw it, the non-work arena is a realm of engagement, of self-fulfillment and learning. Today, off-hours have been relegated to spectator sport.

In one of the not-so-great ironies of the modern world, we're trained to make a living, but not how to do the living we're making. That's left to others -- the stars with the production values, the tabloid train-wreck of the moment. We wind up without the skills to do what is essential for physical and mental health -- participate in our lives through engaged experience.

The link between leisure and health is plenty clear to researchers. A study by Tim Kasser, who heads the psychology department at Knox College in Illinois, found that as work time increases and leisure time decreases, health problems and negative emotions increase. Leisure experiences have been found to reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms. They also build self-esteem and confidence and improve mood through increased self-control and social support.1 Aerobic exercise and vacations have both been shown to reduce depression. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Iso Ahola.

I saw this vitalizing force first-hand in the course of my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life", on the power of engaged experience. I met people whose health and worth had been transformed by active living. Philadelphia breast cancer survivor Kathy King barely had the strength to put a paddle in the water when she went to her first dragon boat paddling practice. Now she's in the front of the boat, leading the charge during races and has rebuilt her life. Her teammate Karen Lynch told me that "life before paddling was just breast cancer and being alone." She says the camaraderie and challenge of paddling "complete my life."

Former Marine Oz Sanchez found his life finished at the age of 25 when a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. After 18 months in a body cast and a long period of despair, he discovered a hand-cycle one day. It brought him to wheelchair racing and back to life. He won a hand-cycling gold medal at the 2008 Paralympics. Many others I met had no physical barriers, but passionate play overcame their mental blocks. Aikido banished insecurity for Montreal resident Erica Gipson; kayaking turned Chris Joose from an insular person to a leader and initiator; rock climbing helped Sara Lingafelter overcome her fears and find strengths and talents she never knew she had.

Passions and the active leisure skills that create them work wonders for your health and outlook because they satisfy core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connection with others. This makeover show happens where it matters: inside. Yet this power of this health resource doesn't filter down to us because of the ingrained notion that recreation and leisure are little removed from outright vagrancy, since they don't produce anything (unless you want to call living a productive endeavor).

We concentrate all our skill-building and education on the work side, where we believe all the value is. Work skills -- getting results, micromanaging, staying in the comfort zone -- get you nowhere when it comes to activating your life, which is about input, not output, experience over results, letting go and getting out of the straitjacket of habit.

It takes another skill-set to create a fulfilling life outside the professional world. Here are some of the key leisure skills that get your life going:

  1. Intrinsic motivation. Pursuing and enjoying experiences off the clock takes a different motivation than the work reflex of external results: intrinsic motivation. You do it for the inherent interest, fun, learning or challenge. Research shows we enjoy what we do and remember much more of it (critical to memory, which is what tells you that you like your life or not) when the goal is intrinsic. Expect no payoff, and you get a big one, internal gratification.
  2. Initiating. Instead of being told what to do or watching others doing the living, we have to break out of spectator mode and self-determine our lives to feel gratified. We need to research and plan activities and vacations, seek out and try new things, invite others to get out and participate -- and if they don't reciprocate, go alone.
  3. Risk-taking. The real risk is not risking. Security is a red flag for the brain, which is built to seek out novelty and challenge. Make the risk intrinsic (the result doesn't matter), and you're able to venture much more because, instead of having anything on the line, you're just exploring.
  4. Pursuit of competence. Since competence is one of your core needs, it's a handy thing to build and sublime to feel. The idea here is that you want to get better at something -- not to show off, not for anyone else but for your own gratification. Pursuing competence leads you to build your skills at an activity to the point where it can become a passion. It's a fabulous self- and life-sustaining skill.
  5. Attention-directing and absorption. The work mind wants to get everything over with ASAP. The key to optimal experiences is being 100 percent engaged in what you're doing now. That means losing the electronic devices and distractions and putting all your concentration on the activity at hand. The more absorbed you are, the more your thoughts and deeds are the same, and the happier you are. It's called harmony.
  6. Going for the experience. Observation and hanging back don't satisfy the engagement mandate of your brain neurons. To activate a fulfilling life, we have to participate in the 40 percent of our potential happiness (the rest is inherited or due to circumstance) we can actually do something about -- intentional activities. That's the realm of experience. Experiences make us happier than material things because they can't be compared with anyone else's experience. They don't lose value through social comparison. They are personal events that engage our self-determination needs.

These skills take us inside the participant dynamic essential to a healthy and extraordinary life. They show us that the good life comes from a place quite a bit different than the recliner, and that the script of nonstop production is about as accurate a route to satisfaction and aliveness as a divining rod.

1. Chalip, L., Thomas, D. R. & Voyle, J. (1992). Sport, recreation and wellbeing. In D. Thomas & A. Veno (Eds.), Psychology and social change: Creating an international agenda. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, Don't Miss Your Life, on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer, and coach at Work to Live.