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Originally published Tuesday, February 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Ready, set: Let's slow down

Sometimes, when I have a near miss on the highway, when I narrowly avoid a traffic accident, I think, "Whew, a signal from the universe...

Special to The Times

Sometimes, when I have a near miss on the highway, when I narrowly avoid a traffic accident, I think, "Whew, a signal from the universe. Slow down! Quit rushing! Pay attention!"

A close call like that is a pretty obvious signal. And right now, there seem to be lots of signals that we, as a country, need to slow down.

Heart disease is our No. 1 health problem, followed by depression. Happiness has been on the decline for the past 40 years. I don't think there's a medical category for "hurry sickness," but we're all carriers.

Americans as a people have always had a lot of energy and drive. We see a problem and we tackle it. We want something and we go after it. But maybe that's our tragic flaw. Peter Whybrow, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, captures the problem in the title of his new book, "American Mania." Our incredible energy has become obsessive rushing and maybe we're just galloping toward the cliff.

Could we learn something from Europe's "Slow Life" movement? The movement started in Italy when McDonald's moved into Rome. At first it was a joke, but now the "Slow Food" movement has spread around the world, with more than 6,000 members on five continents. (Seattle has a chapter.) It advocates taking time to eat slowly, eat well, and enjoy.

And there's also the "Slow Cities" movement. Slow cities encourage people to take time for lunch hours and to shop in local businesses. The Slow Cities mission statement talks about "civilized harmony," "serenity of everyday life," and "slow, reflective living." Slow cities have lots of cafes where people can linger over their lunch for long conversations with friends.

This social movement has even spread to Japan, our longtime competitor for extreme work hours. (Japan used to work more than any other industrialized country, but now we're No. 1.) The mayor of one Japanese city issued a "take it easy" declaration, urging people to go home early in the evening, take a walk with their family, and talk to their neighbors.

And this seems to be the most important place to begin — taking time for people. It's obvious that a slower pace reduces your stress and so is beneficial to your health. But the most significant reason to slow down is time for relationships.

Why? Research shows that taking time for friends and family is the most important thing you can do for your physical and psychological well-being. And building trust, caring and commitment is something that can't be rushed.

In fact, researchers blame our declining happiness on our reduction in time spent with others. Robert Putnam, in "Bowling Alone," says that, sure, we still bowl, but we're no longer bowling in leagues. He shows that the frequency of day-to-day relationship activities — things like having people over, participation in civic organizations, or just talking to each other over the back fence — have been cut almost in half, and it's affected our overall well-being.

In a slower life, we would amble through our days and stop to chat with people we meet; we would, once again, gather around the water cooler and get caught up; we would take time to laugh and smile and enjoy each other.

Everyone says, "Won't that ruin the economy?" But as David Korten, author of "When Corporations Rule the World," says, "What's an economy for?"

Isn't it to help create a happy, healthy country? What good is a "healthy" economy if it's killing its citizens?

In fact, what will happen to our productivity if we don't slow down? Creativity, collaboration and team building all need a slower pace. Strong, successful managers never appear rushed and rattled. They take time for their people; they take time to help their employees feel valued and cared for. That's how you get real productivity.

Yes, people are fearful about their jobs and survival right now, but it's in times of crisis that we're forced to change. Whybrow says that we are being pushed to the edge of our psychological and physiological limits. We can't take much more. We need a new approach to both the economy and to our sense of well-being.

We need to pay attention to all the subtle messages telling us to slow down — the feeling of being constantly irritable and ready to explode, the fear that we're always behind. But the dramatic messages are there as well. How can anyone avoid re-evaluating his or her life in the face of the tsunami tragedy? Life is demanding that we ask ourselves: What's important, what matters?

You can begin by slowing down your own life, but we need deeper changes as well.

Policy efforts to provide shorter work hours, longer vacations and greater support time with family are important. I say let's go one step further, and declare Seattle a "Slow City." Instead of "Sleepless in Seattle," it can now be "Slowly in Seattle"!

Cecile Andrews is a member of The Phinney EcoVillage Project and an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University. She can be reached at

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