By Major Stefan ShirleyDecember 18, 2017
When contemplating the mid-life crisis phenomenon, the 1983 movie National Lampoon's Vacation comes to mind. Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, takes his family on an impromptu cross-country trip in an attempt to bring them closer together, but along the way they are met with an insurmountable number of challenges. Spoiler alert: The Griswolds make it through the tough times and Clark learns that in order to fill the internal void causing his mid-life crisis he needed nothing more than to find happiness in what he already possessed.
Fast forward nearly 35 years since the movie's debut and it is not hard to see how many of us have become casualty to a mid-life crisis. Men and women alike turn to unaffordable adventures and overspending on extraneous products in order to compensate for something lacking, or to feel more at peace with themselves.
This year marks a quarter century of military service for me and it is easy to understand how overwhelmed we can get in the daily minutiae surrounding our lives. All the while we try to balance being a loving and devoted family member, hard-working and dedicated public servant, and an understanding and loyal friend. For those of us serving in the military, we rarely take time to recognize how we can work to improve ourselves as well. By neglecting to focus inward, we struggle to find balance or to promote mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not a new practice and is trending on numerous social media platforms and blogs alike. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines mindfulness as "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." That is, mindfulness is understanding oneself by doing nothing more than being aware. The German philosopher, Thomas Metzinger, suggests that humans "have introspective neglect and are off target or completely out of control mentally for 30 to 50 percent of our daytime and two-thirds of our conscience lifetime if we take into account dream life as well." This would imply we only pay attention to the people and things around us just half of the time.
The Army recognizes the barrage of demands placed on Soldiers and their loved ones and has developed the Soldier For Life program designed to provide a "holistic shift in how the Army focuses on Soldier support services in all phases of the Soldier lifecycle." This program aims to ensure "Soldiers, past and present, are aware of policies and educational, credentialing and health and wellness services, and actively engages with those entities who can provide services to Soldiers and their Families."
In order to practice the fundamentals of Soldier For Life and mindfulness, one must be healthy in all aspects of life; specifically, the individual must possess wellness. In this article, I summarize various wellness concepts and offer approaches for busy military members to better practice techniques to bring them closer to a state of mindfulness throughout our daily and sometimes hectic lives. While this piece focuses on the military member, it is not limited to those who currently serve. Veterans, family members, and defense employees can all benefit from practicing mindfulness.
Numerous individuals claim to know the elusive roadmap to wellness but one direction common in most paths is to classify wellness techniques into multiple dimensions. Depending on the perspective, dimensions range from five to eleven. Here are seven of what I consider the most important.
1. Environmental Wellness. While not all of us live or work near the mountains or beaches, we do have the ability to enjoy our outdoor environment. Take a break, walk outside the office, and give yourself time to reset and remove the thoughts of work. We simply need to open our eyes, clear our minds, take a few deep breaths, and appreciate our surroundings.
2. Financial Wellness. Whether single or in a relationship, money issues are a human affair. According to a recent poll by CNBC, the main source of stress in nearly 50 percent of couples involves money. Our goal should be to minimize the negative impact finances have in our lives. Those in uniform can rest easy knowing a recurring bank deposit is a certainty. The unknown variable is how much of the paycheck you decide to spend. Talk with a financial advisor to better understand planning wealth management. Set both individual and family economic goals for the near and long-term. Get educated on fiscal matters through various media platforms. Most importantly, take everything you learn and reevaluate the goals periodically. Financial wellness takes time.
3. Intellectual Wellness. The 17th century English poet, Thomas Traherne, wrote "nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well." Make a personal commitment to spend 10 percent of yearly income on learning. Attend seminars, workshops, and take classes provided by the community. Read books, newspapers, and online articles to help foster critical thinking. Challenge personal bias and learn about areas outside everyday knowledge. The best way to be effective problem solvers is by engaging the mind.
4. Physical Wellness. Army physical readiness training places "a premium on the Soldier's strength, stamina, agility, resiliency, and coordination" but there is much more to physical wellness than simply going to the gym and training for push-ups, sit-ups, and a run. Incorporate eating healthy foods in daily meals and snacks. Studies show that runners lose one to two seconds per mile for every extra pound we carry; thus, getting rid of 10 unnecessary pounds through healthy eating can reduce 30 seconds from the next two-mile run. Another way to support mindfulness is to get satisfying sleep. The bedroom is not a place for watching television, checking email, or scrolling through social media. Put the electronics away and create a refreshing bedtime habit. Doing this can improve memory, spur creativity, sharpen attention, and help you live longer.
5. Occupational Wellness. Starting a new job every few years can be stressful in itself but such is the military life. One way to productively navigate this change is through mentorship. Eric Greitens, former Navy Seal and now Governor of Missouri says the intent should not be to find a mentor but instead set out to learn. Effective leaders are also willing learners. If we stay humble and recognize that everyone has something to teach us then we can find many great mentors. To provide constructive and worthwhile guidance, mentors must continually seek self-improvement through professional learning. Professional learning involves reading books, magazines, and journals; listening to relevant podcasts; and staying current with the strategic and tactical environment surrounding us. We should strive to be experts in our craft and continue to learn beyond our career field.
6. Social Wellness. Upon waking up one morning, internet entrepreneur Noah Kagan began scrolling through social media. After 15 minutes he asked himself if life was better, worse, or the same after that time. At that moment he removed all social media apps and notifications from his phone. "And now I have all this time back that isn't wasteful or mindless time. Then I thought, what can I use this time on that is actually more useful or fulfilling to my brain? Is there learning, real relationships, are there podcasts, or books? I gave it up and have forgotten about it." Our social wellness is greatly enhanced by eliminating unnecessary distractions like television, spam emails, app notifications, etc. Instead, schedule uninterrupted face-to-face time with loved ones. Plan a date night, coffee klatch, or brunch to catch up and strengthen relationships with friends and family.
7. Spiritual / Emotional Wellness. Make personal time for self-reflection and meditation. Self-reflection is a powerful tool to understand our emotions and develop spiritual well-being. We achieve tranquility through quiet introspection in a house of worship, long solitary walks, or through reflective journaling. Meditation targets every waking moment and allows us to focus on the important tasks at hand. Numerous benefits arise through meditation and include stress reduction, improved concentration, and increased self-awareness, to name a few. Deep learning and pensive thought occurs when we focus and reflect on our actions.
The cadence of military life is unique and it is incumbent upon us to find balance and to be ready for the unexpected. The Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and our newly appointed Secretary of Army, Dr. Mark Esper, all agree that readiness is the number one priority of our force and units must focus on personnel readiness as a total Army force effort. Through applying the seven wellness dimensions, each of us can be the best version of ourselves to everyone with whom we interact. In the end, we should all set our sights on being mindful in our everyday lives and in turn we will be great.
Major Stefan Shirley is an Operations Research Systems Analyst (ORSA) and Budget Analyst in the Headquarters, Department of the Army G-4's Resource Management division. He holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's of education (M.Ed.) specializing in mathematics, both from Iowa State University.