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The Taboo Cure for Our National Gloom: Live a Little!

We may have avoided an economic depression, but not a psychological one. Despair, helplessness and cynicism have the nation in a headlock, one that has pinned our resiliency to the mat.
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There are no camels, and not a dune in sight at this oasis, which sits between a laundromat and a vacant storefront at a tiny strip mall in Santa Monica, Calif. Inside Varieties International, 14 feet and arms are a blur of motion, bouncing and whirling to the vivacious rhythms of Brazilian samba, taught by Claudia Castello. For an hour this Saturday morning, people from all walks of life have found a respite from economic gloom, letting the music and movement change the tune from incessant doom.

"You come in here and hear the music, and it just makes you happy," says dancer Ashley Jefferson. "You're surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves. It's a real community feeling."

In the samba class; at the Hope Afloat dragon boat paddling team's practices in Philadelphia; at the Great River T'ai Chi Ch'uan Center in Washington, D.C.; at H2Outfitters kayaking school on Orr's Island, Maine; and at the Chicago Dance studio in the Windy City, there is a parallel universe from the one of darkness and doom that surrounds us these days. It's a realm of possibility, camaraderie and hope in trying times.

We may have avoided an economic depression, but not a psychological one. Despair, helplessness and cynicism have the nation in a headlock, one that has pinned our resiliency to the mat. We are out of practice dealing with times like these, which haven't been seen since the Great Depression. We're particularly rusty at one of the best coping mechanisms for hard times, the last thing you'd probably think about right now: Recreation.

Even in the Great Depression, which lasted a decade, it wasn't all gloom. People escaped their troubles in 25-cent movies, high school football games and barn dances. Things were tough in Duluth, Minn. in the 1930s, but that didn't prevent my mother's family from gathering around to sing songs with Aunt Sylvie or play card games. It was friends, family and the entertainment you participated in yourself, that got you through during the Depression -- and that still get you through the stresses and setbacks of life.

Researchers have amassed a mountain of evidence showing that we have a powerful source of resiliency right at our fingertips. Recreation buffers stressful events, increases optimism, builds self-esteem and confidence and increases social support -- all things we could use right now. As I detail in my new book on the power of participant experiences, "Don't Miss Your Life," the taboo realm of recreation is a potent engine of life satisfaction. A study led by Princeton's Alan Krueger that examined how 4,000 Americans spent their time, found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in "engaging leisure experiences."

The University of Colorado's Leaf Van Boven has shown that experiences make us happier than material items, since they can't be compared to anyone else's experiences and form the positive memories that tell us we like our lives. Thomas DeLeire, at the University of Wisconsin, found that only one of the nine categories of consumption he measured was linked to an increase in happiness: leisure purchases. Recreation is so good at "re-creating" mindsets that there is a whole field of health devoted to it: recreation therapy, which builds self-worth and positive mood for people with disabilities, through activities such as horseback riding or wheelchair basketball.

We don't just need an economic recovery; we need a psychological one -- a national program of recreation therapy to lift spirits, restore our sense of competence and increase capacity for enjoyment, the proven outcomes of recreation participation. The research shows that leisure experiences are far from the trivial sideshow we think they are. They provide a critical line of defense against the setbacks of life; buffering stress and building self-determination and social connection, which satisfy core needs. Recreation is medicine, only a lot cheaper and more fun than the stuff at the drugstore. A dance class runs $10-$15 a week. It's $6 to play badminton at my neighborhood college. Most hikes and outings at your local Sierra Club chapter are free. There are a host of no or low-cost activities at city and county parks around the nation.

Seppo Iso-Ahola, a professor at the University of Maryland who has researched the link between leisure and stress, says that, "The higher the frequency of participation in leisure activities, the higher the life satisfaction."

Americans are lousy at R&R even in good times. Participation in slow-pitch softball is down 30 percent, beach volleyball by 26 percent and ice hockey by 24 percent since 2000, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association. U.S. Census data shows that 78% of Americans over the age of 30 don't get any regular exercise. Just 14 percent of Americans take vacations of two weeks or longer, according to a Harris survey.

We're busy, true, but there's also something else going on. Our identities have become so fused with what we do for a living, that many of us have lost the ability to step back from the productive mindset. We don't have any leisure skills anymore. All the value and worth has gotten tied up in output. Pull away for a moment of input, and that voice pops up, telling you to get busy. We wind up with the false belief that recreation is some kind of character flaw and that we have to work to a near stroke before we're entitled to indulge in a brief respite.

If employed people have a hard time unwinding, the unemployed are in a double-bind. How can they even think about the recreation they need to reduce anxiety and keep spirits up if they're not working? That would be irresponsible, slacker-ish. No, what's irresponsible is the bogus social norm that keeps this highly effective and very low-cost antidote to despair and remarkable engine of joy off-limits.

Some people have figured this out and are finding enjoyment and camaraderie even in these volatile times by indulging in their favorite interests. In the research for Don't Miss Your Life I met a host of folks who have opted out of fear by choosing life engagement, people like the breast cancer survivors on the Hope Afloat dragon boat paddling team in Philadelphia. They've continued to carve water and compete in races throughout the downturn. They know better than anyone that rumination on trouble only fuels anxiety.

"Before paddling, it was just breast cancer and being alone," said paddler Karen Lynch. Now she's got a large support network and a source of fun and fulfillment every week. Having been through worse than a recession, she and her fellow paddlers know the power of recreational experiences to lift us from the depths.

The recession and its endless aftermath have punched us in the gut, but we can start to climb out of the pit with experiences that counter the catastrophic thoughts cooked up by the caveman brain. The research is clear that positive experiences keep the anxiety at bay. The University of North Carolina's Barbara Frederickson has shown that it takes three positive events to every negative one to stay in the positive column, since negative emotions are so potent. The current ratio emanating from the airwaves of the land must be around 300 negative to every one positive. Data from a wide variety of research shows that it is the cumulative effect of many small positive events that increases happiness.

That's the role that recreation plays. You don't have to justify it. It's simply an essential ingredient for vital physical and mental health. This holiday season let's try something different and give the gift of living, with a recreational class or activity that can lift up a friend or family member. Give an engaging experience, which researchers say makes us happier than material things.

To help shift the national mood, today I'm launching the Live A Little campaign, with partners including the Huffington Post, Experience Life magazine, and the Adventure Travel Trade Assoc. We're calling for activity providers across the nation to offer a free class -- yoga, dance, volleyball, climbing and more -- and for people to consider giving a recreational experience this holiday season. Visit the Live A Little page to find out how you can refer instructors and providers who can donate a class. Our problems are huge, but we can find the energy and support to push through them when we're getting regular refueling. We don't have to stop living until everything is solved.

Last year I visited an old dance hall in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, filled with a working class audience of ecstatic samba dancers and my favorite music. On the back wall, there was a huge banner that read (in Portuguese): "As long as we have dance, we still have hope." That's what we get from this powerful source of re-creation right next to us, the visceral evidence that we can feel better, that things change, and that we are not alone.

Let's beat fear by stepping into the center of life, where we may find a silver lining in hard times -- a new understanding of where true value lies: in the friends, family and, yes, recreation that get us through. We may be down, but we're not out. We've got life.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach. For more on the Live a Little campaign and how you can help, go to