Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Life Lessons From the Land Down Under

I just arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, after a few very pleasant days in Australia, which is just coming out of a pleasant winter and heading into an even more pleasant spring. Did I mention it’s very pleasant there? Even though I’ve been spending most of my time giving speeches and meeting with potential partners for HuffPost Australia (with plans to launch in the Australian autumn, i.e. our U.S. spring), it’s impossible not to remark on the vastness of the country. Australia ranks 6th in the world in size, but 56th in population. It’s a continent and a country and an island. It’s got vast empty stretches where you can feel very alone, and yet is also an extremely urban country, with nearly 90 percent of the population living in an urban center. As one mordantly funny bit of Australian wisdom warns tourists, “If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.”

It turns out, Australians are great at being part of the group (at least in my brief experience there, they don’t need a lot of coaxing to come out and have fun), but also very comfortable with being alone. As technology and our increasing hyperconnectedness have created the phenomenon of being “alone together” — in which we’re seldom entirely and truly alone with ourselves, but also never really fully part of a group — Australians still have a way of doing both.

But the country as a whole also puts into stark relief the challenges we all face. It’s a country where the people are as sunny as the weather. They’re upbeat, social, outgoing, gregarious, eager to connect and engage. And yet they’re not immune to some of the same darker trends confronting other countries. For example:

• In 2013, 26 percent of Australians reported experiencing moderate or severe distress levels, and 73 percent said stress has an impact on their physical health. About 40 percent said they’ve used alcohol to help them cope with stress.

• Stress-related illness costs the Australian economy nearly $15 billion per year.

* One in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any given year.

• Depression is the number one non-fatal disability in Australia. In 2013, Australia was the second-highest prescriber of anti-depressants, with Australians’ anti-depressant use doubling in the past 10 years.

• Suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24.

And Australians are facing the same work-life issues as the rest of the world. As one ad agency leader put it, “Clients don’t think anything of texting me at 9pm at night. Now I don’t feel as if I ever really switch off.” So it’s no surprise that, as asurvey by Cisco found, nine out of ten Australians under the age of 30 are addicted to their smartphones, with 20 percent reportedly checking their devices at least every ten minutes.

And, of course, there’s the challenge of getting enough sleep, which Australians are also not immune to. In one poll, 96 percent of those surveyed reported that they wake up tired, and almost 40 percent had dozed off in the middle of a meeting or right at their desk.

Australia may be geographically isolated from the rest of the world, but they’re right in the middle with the rest of us in facing the roadblocks that keep us from living a healthy life. But though the roadblocks that make it harder to live a healthy life are pretty universal (overwork, exhaustion, burnout, stress, all amplified by technology), each country I’ve been in in my recent travels gets around the roadblocks in its own unique way.

In South Korea, for instance, which is often considered the burnout capital of the world, with the average worker putting in 2,200 hours each year, and the suicide rate tripling since 1992 (they even have a word, “gwarosa,” which means suicide related to overwork), they also have Kouksundo, a practice that mixes meditation, breathing and martial arts and has been shown to combat stress and anxiety.

And in Japan, another country that struggles with burnout and exhaustion, and has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, there are shrines and gardens and meditating monks everywhere, and ancient traditions of Buddhism, Shintoism and Zen Meditation are being adopted to help young people deal with the stress of finding a job.

In Australia, they have their own traditions — from a vibrant beach culture to the ancient Aboriginal concept of “Dreamtime” — the belief that “all life as it is today — Human, Animal, Bird and Fish is part of one vast unchanging network of relationships which can be traced to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.” Traveling even a short distance outside an Australian city, into the quiet of the vast outback, or even pausing to absorb the unique beauty of the Sydney Opera House, the concept of Dreamtime can feel very present.

Of course, another key component of thriving is giving, and here, too, the Australians have made their mark. According to 2012’s World Giving Index, Australians were the most generous people in the world, with more than two-thirds giving money to charity and over one-third giving their time to volunteer.

Australians have also made the “gap year” a milestone of young adulthood. Instead of going straight from high school into college and then straight into the rat race, more than a quarter of Australians put college off a year for a more unstructured time of exploration. ‘’Parents fear a gap year may disrupt a student’s momentum,” said Andrew Martin, a professor at the University of Sydney, “but it is possible it is part of the momentum.”

It could be a different kind of momentum, more in line with one of my favorite aboriginal proverbs: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”


Originally published at www.linkedin.com.