Back in the wild old days, my best buddy and I used to call going out “looking for trouble”. We weren’t hoping for a punch-up or a little light robbery, but a spontaneous adventure involving music, strangers or just the city at night. All that spur-of-the-moment fun has taken quite a beating since the pandemic began, for many millions of us. First came the lockdowns, social distancing and closed venues, then the cautious reopening when even a trip to the pub or an art gallery had to be booked weeks in advance. And now, just when it seemed the world was finally getting back to normal, Omicron has come wielding its everything’s-off-again sledgehammer, crushing all those dreams of nights out, holidays and raucous parties. Not only does it seem foolish to plan anything, but after two years of frustration and self-restraint, it’s hard to summon up the enthusiasm to do anything off the cuff.
And that’s quite a loss. While we often think anticipation is half the fun, in 2016 researchers from two US universities found that people enjoyed activities more when they were impromptu. Scheduling a coffee break or a movie, for instance, made them feel “less free-flowing and more work-like”, wrote the authors. As Jane Austen put it 200 years ago in Emma: “Why not seize the pleasure at once? – How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!”
Masks don’t help, says Edward Slingerland, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of Trying Not to Try. “It’s difficult to get into any kind of relaxed, spontaneous rhythm when you can’t see the other person’s facial expressions. Our in-person interactions have been drained of the subtle facial cues that we normally use to tell if the other person is enjoying themselves or if a comment is landing the right way.” This renders even those precious interactions with strangers when out in the world so much harder. Video calls are equally unconducive. “You’re not in the same room. There’s often a subtle time delay that may not seem like very much, but it’s hard for people to know when you’re done talking, when it’s OK for me to start. It’s impossible to relax into natural, really positive social interactions that have spontaneity to them.”
The good news is that, as counterintuitive as it sounds, you can work at being more spontaneous. For his book, Slingerland looked at how ancient Chinese thinkers tackled the problem. “It involved things like ritual activities, meditation, breathing practices or just trying to trick your mind into forgetting that you’re trying to be spontaneous.” Because, he explains, if you put your mind to the problem directly, you’re activating the part of the brain you need to shut down – the cognitive control areas. The key is relaxation, not striving.
Slingerland isn’t suggesting we moderns start doing Confucian rituals, but, he says, “there’s a very similar function served by doing things like weeding the garden, or going for a walk – using your body in a way where you’re interacting with the natural world”. The early Chinese word for the state these activities bring on is wuwei. “I translate it as ‘effortless actions’,” he says. “A state where you lose a sense of yourself as an agent, and you get absorbed in what you’re doing.” Some modern thinkers might equate this sort of state with “flow”, while there are obvious comparisons, too, with mindfulness. “Look at the sunlight on trees and hear birds and you get absorbed in something bigger than yourself,” says Slingerland. “That takes you out of your head and allows you to relax.”
This isn’t just about enjoying a good night out. We also need spontaneity to embrace change, says the clinical psychologist and writer Linda Blair. “And change is necessary for progress of any sort. Spontaneity makes us happier, too.” In 2016, a team of Austrian and Italian researchers found that people with less spontaneity in their lives experienced greater “psychological suffering”.
The best way forward at the moment, says Blair, “is to turn things on their head and instead of talking about trying to be spontaneous, you say: ‘There is no other way to be right now.’” Now is the time for seizing the day and moving with your heart, or your gut. “You want to go to your favourite restaurant?” asks Blair. “Don’t plan it – go there today, while it’s still open.”
She points out that disrupting routines can help to free the mind. This could mean switching off your mental autopilot and thinking about what you really feel like for breakfast today. Another spontaneity starter, she says, is having a backwards day. “That’s a lot of fun, especially with kids. Start your day with dinner, say – anything that shakes up the triggers that keep us doing the same things.”
Triggers are things that keep us acting automatically. The cookie jar that makes us think we’re hungry. The phone ping that takes us into a rabbit hole and delays making lunch by 45 minutes. Triggers are not spontaneity’s friends. So Blair’s top tip for starting the day free of our inner naysayers and triggers is to write down all your thoughts first thing in the morning, before you do anything else. This process is called the Morning Pages and was devised by the writer Julia Cameron, originally as part of what she called the Artist’s Way – a method for unblocking creativity. “The best way to be spontaneous,” says Blair, “is to clear out the rubbish that mentally clogs you up every day. You get up in the morning and you write anything, whatever is going through your head, even if it’s: ‘Why am I doing this?’” Cameron prescribes three A4 pages, but if that puts you off, Blair says you’ll still benefit from just writing until you run out, “or for five minutes”.
Don’t let time pressures stop you. “One person I know gets up at four o’clock to do it, so that the kids can’t possibly bother her,” says Blair. “It is important to have your own time, and to look at what comes out as potential to do things in a new way.” Not only does this boost your propensity for spontaneity for the rest of the day, says Blair, but it often generates spontaneous ideas. “It suddenly awakens you, so for example, you have a dream that you write down about having seen somebody you realise you haven’t been in touch with for ages. So you now call them or email them.”
Joe Oliver is a clinical psychologist who specialises in acceptance and commitment therapy – a mindfulness-based behavioural therapy – and has some good solutions if you’ve lost your spontaneity. So many of his clients have a sense of malaise just now, partly from general pandemic pressures, but also, he says, from “the lack of fun that’s available to them. And fun comes so much from spontaneity – doing things and not thinking too much about it, connecting with people, doing an activity and being allowed to take it in unexpected directions.”
One of the barriers, he says, “is people wanting to stay in their comfort zones, where it’s safe, predictable, ordered and people know how things are going to go”. The comfort zone can be useful – especially at the moment, when we need to keep safe, but there’s a danger of talking ourselves out of adventuring. “Overthinking is an absolute classic one,” says Oliver. “Getting entangled with worry about the future: it’s going to be terrible, it’s not going to work out, it won’t be fun, it’s going to have bad consequences, you won’t be safe. And when people get caught up with those thoughts, of course, they do that natural thing of retreating into their comfort zone. Or they ruminate a lot.”
Part of the problem is living not in the present, but in the past or the future, thinking: “What about the times it hasn’t worked?” says Oliver. But understanding that this is going on is the first step to recovering spontaneity. He reminds clients: “There’s good evidence that unplanned-for opportunities support wellbeing and mental health.”
Next time you catch yourself chickening out of doing something on the spur of the moment, he suggests overruling your critical brain and telling yourself: “I’m doing this because it’s good for me. And I like it. It’s fun. Let’s persist through this initial anxiety and see what comes afterwards.” Mindfulness will help you enjoy the moment you’re in, Oliver says, but “it doesn’t have to be a full-on meditative practice”. Just “anchor into your feet, notice your breath for 10 seconds, roll your shoulders back, drop your arms and spend some time coming down into your body”.
Catch those limiting thoughts that tell you we can’t draw/skateboard/jog in the rain, he says, but don’t try to argue with them. If you challenge the thoughts, it creates “a bit of a tussle and can inadvertently give those thoughts a bit more power”. Instead, try thinking: “There are those thoughts again,” or even thank them for their feedback – after all, they’re only trying to keep us safe.
Oliver’s other tricks include taking turns with a friend or partner to suggest new things to do, “to build in randomness. I’ve got a favourite pub but my partner often wants to go somewhere else, not in my comfort zone. Sometimes, in the interest of spontaneity, we say to the other: ‘OK, you decide.’ Or sometimes we come up with a couple of pubs and flip a coin.” Because, while your instincts might tell you to stay in your comfort zone, there’s actually no way of foretelling which option will result in the most fun on any given day.
“As Daniel Gilbert at Harvard has shown us so well,” says Blair, “we don’t accurately estimate what the future is going to be like. We usually think it’s going to be better than it is. And we don’t accurately estimate what the past was like, either. We are hard on ourselves and overly critical about what happened – or we romanticise it. But now … you can be happy right now.” She says her patients often tell her about a recurring pain that keeps them up at night because it’s so bad. But when she asks them how it is right now, they say: “What, the pain? Oh, it’s not too bad.” Again with the living in the future and the past. “Coming to the now,” says Blair, “things are usually OK.” And here, Austen bears repeating: “Seize the pleasure at once.”