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My View: Emulating Olmsted with mental pathways

My View: Emulating Olmsted with mental pathways

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By Sharon Cramer

Sharon Cramer (copy)

Sharon Cramer, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emerita, has learned to re-route herself many times over the years.

When Frederick Law Olmsted was invited to design Buffalo’s city parks, he went far beyond the assignment.  He imagined a majestic urban landscape, recommending a series of interconnected parks, parkways and landscaped circles, transforming urban vistas.  

Rather than just positioning parks inside city limits, he proposed a “city within a park,” to uplift citizens. In a century when complicated clothing was well-suited to ambling, Olmsted’s wide walkways welcomed those with time to pause. Parkway circles contain lovingly maintained plants and seasonal flowers, then and now.

In today’s complicated world, sometimes, when we have time for reflection, we can find ourselves in different sorts of mental traffic circles. These roundabouts of memory come upon us, interrupting everyday routines. Suddenly they appear, transporting us instantly back to difficult times. Vivid recollections surface, of imperfect moments, silence at times requiring comment, or harsh words that sluiced. As either the victim or the perpetrator, we are forced to re-live the audio and visual of painful episodes. Helpless, I used to go round and round, memories keeping me imprisoned.

But, no more. I redesigned my mental landscapes. As strong and real as these memories are – Imax movies, even when showing scenes from decades ago – I’ve taught myself how to escape. Like Olmsted, I’ve released myself from constraints, and put new walkways into my mental surroundings. As a result, I can exit the loops with sentences such as “I am the only one who remembers that lapse – it is time to forgive” or “We did the best we could at the time” or “It was what it was.”  

Instead of traffic signs signaling danger, I have made peace with those challenging moments. Instead of being a captive of my mind, I employ the triangular yellow “yield” sign, and get back on my regular mental road.

My new habits have much in common with an article recently published in the journal Emotion, titled “Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults” (by Strum, et al.). The researchers found benefits of a simple type of intentional thinking – looking to be awe-inspired. Dr. Virginia Strum and her colleagues asked volunteers (aged 60 and over) to incorporate a 15-minute walk into their weekly routines for eight weeks. Twenty four received no other instructions, while 28 were asked to look around during their walks, searching out details, to look for the unexpected, the new, in urban or nature settings. Small but significant differences were found between the groups: those who intentionally looked for examples of how to be inspired were happier, less upset, and more socially connected than their counterparts.  

This research resonated for me: Providing guidance for our minds is like laying out urban pathways. Easily, these “awe walks” translate into Olmsted’s actual curving parkways or the planned mental routes I’ve discovered.  Olmsted’s meandering paths are the perfect template to offer us ways to, Houdini-like, break out of some of our mental prisons, to consciously stroll in wonder.

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