Inner London has been my home for nearly 20 years now and consciously choose to participate in big city life.
Over the years I’ve developed a handful of key rituals that help me to embrace the upsides whilst reducing the downsides.
Here are my most valuable “London life” habits.
I find London to be an incredible city to walk around at any time of the year. I particularly like the stroll along the South Bank of the River Thames from London Bridge to Westminster; at sunset it is spectacular and a great way to unwind.
The longer I’ve lived here the more I’ve walked, it’s a really good way to get more movement into what could otherwise easily become a very sedentary way of living and also to get a different appreciation of the city. Whilst it could feel counterintuitive to the dreaded sense of ultra-productivity that all Londoners sometimes feel the pressure of, I find it especially rewarding to build in extra time to walk an extra tube stop or two after meetings or at the end of the working day. Walking, breathing and actively observing the world around us can be a surprisingly effective way to move through feelings of stress or overwhelm. Even when that hasn’t worked, getting active has never made me feel worse and the movement is physically beneficial.
It’s even better if walking can be coupled with passing through a park or other green space. There are a surprisingly large number of green spaces dotted around London and spending time in them can really help us reconnect with nature and get a sense of space that sometimes we feel denied of in a large city. I’m not one for hanging out in parks to picnic, or read or relax but I love walking through them to help me get from A to B or just for a more leisurely walk. Something that’s noticeably changed my experience of green spaces is taking the time to notice what’s going on around me whether it’s seeing kids playing, dogs running around, sports matches underway or people relaxing, laughing and smiling.
Kindness and politeness are hugely underrated. I’ve learned that almost everybody has a struggle that we know nothing about, and a bit of kindness can change someone’s day and create a ripple effect that we’ll never see. I’m talking about the little things that cost us nothing from remembering to make eye contact and say thank you to the person who’s making me coffee to holding a door open for the person walking behind me. Big city life can feel impersonal sometimes, particularly when things aren’t going our way, and these little gestures help remind me that we are fundamentally all stumbling our way through the human experience. A bit of genuine connection, even for a moment, can be so beneficial.
The above ideas have enhanced my day to day experience of London life. There are two practices that have been even more fundamental to my long term sense of well-being whilst living here though.
The first is to leave London regularly! That can be as simple as a brief trip out to the countryside or another town for a couple of hours, it’s surprising what’s accessible to us within just an hour of London. I’m lucky to be able to regularly go further afield and really get into nature or different environments for longer periods of time. As much as I love inner city life, even after 20 years here I make sure I leave London at least once every three to four weeks. A change really is as good as a rest.
The second practice is the most valuable and rewarding, but also the trickiest to cultivate. By knowing several ways to meditate, it means I am regularly able to find places of calm and stillness that don’t depend on external circumstances or environments in any way. Living in a city like London we are open to relentless stimulation, potentially leading to harmful effects caused by too much adrenaline and cortisol in our systems such as increased blood pressure or higher blood sugar.
Meditating is an effective way to counteract those symptoms by turning on our bodies’ healing systems, as well as giving us some escape from other aspects of big city life. I know that most of us have heard that meditation is good for us but we struggle to integrate these ideas into already hectic, full lives. That’s why it’s my mission to make meditation and other evidence based mental well-being tools more accessible and easier to integrate into our busy 21st century lives, via my start-up Mind: Unlocked.
Overall, I love living in London. I love the energy, the vibrancy and the sense of possibility. But I have found that it takes a bit of active, conscious action through the above rituals to make it work for me.
As cliched as it sounds, I truly believe we have far more influence in shaping our experience than we often realise, and that often starts with reimagining the way we see the world which has a knock on effect on how we choose to think, show up and act.
I hope these ideas stimulate you to cultivate a more rewarding experience of your own big city life.
Niraj Shah is co-founder of Mind: Unlocked, a mental well-being start-up that helps people with everyday problems like dealing with stress or finding digital balance. Mind: Unlocked shares research-led, practical tools that can be incorporated into the flow of your busy 21st century life.
Niraj also co-leads the European development of Transformative Technology Lab, a Silicon Valley based non-profit, which is the largest global community leveraging technology to raise mental health, emotional well-being and human thriving. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and website.