Have you ever found yourself getting tired while engaged in an important activity and then suddenly — even mysteriously — felt wonderfully re-energized? Commonly known as “getting your second wind” (a phrase that became popular in America in the late 1800s) this intriguing phenomenon was highlighted by William James over a century ago. The founder of American psychology and its greatest philosopher, he had initially planned to become a professional painter. But lacking artistic talent he chose a different path, opting for an academic career.
At Harvard University he developed America’s first psychology laboratory and later, turned his immense intellect to topics such as religious experience (including prayer and mysticism), the mind-body relationship in health and sickness, and the nature of human consciousness. In exploring such topics he often delved into Indian spiritual writings and practices (such as yoga). In December 1906, he presented a superb speech before the American Philosophical Association (APA) at New York City’s Columbia University. It was published a few weeks later in The Philosophical Review as ‘The Energies of Men,’ and was soon reprinted in Science Magazine – its impact was tremendous, both in popularity as well as professionally. In the paper, James asserted that people often give up on tasks and projects too soon, that is before they get their “second wind” to propel themselves across the finish line. “Our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon” but that exist and can be tapped effectively, he insisted.
Usually, this phenomenon occurs without our deliberate planning or effort. But James suggested that psychology might someday discover ways to help each of us tap into our stored-up energy, whether we engage in “physical work, intellectual work, moral work, or spiritual work.”
Developing your second wind
Although he had a deep interest in mysticism and religious experience, it was medicine that he was trained in – he began working first as a laboratory scientist.
As a result, he believed in the importance of data for advancing scientific knowledge. In this vein, he recommended that psychology develop a “topography of the limits of human power, similar to the chart which oculists use of the field of human vision.” To this he added, “We also need a study of the various types of human beings with reference to the different ways in which their energy reserves may be …and set loose.” That way we can objectively know our true potential. Though James’ vision is yet to be realized, it remains a beacon for everyone interested in humanity’s most positive features.
Here are some relevant activities to connect with this concept in your life:
1. Describe an experience in your life when you were feeling exhausted or drained — either mentally or physically — and then suddenly regained vitality and enthusiasm. What do you think caused your “second wind” to kick in? Did it involve encouragement from another person such as a family member or friend, or a powerful moment of self-motivation, both of these causes, or something else entirely? If so, what?
2. If you were teaching a skill or a sport to primary-school-age children, what advice would you give to help them access their “second wind?” What do you think is children’s biggest obstacle to developing this ability? Do you think it’s easier for teenagers to access their “second wind?” If so, why?
3. During the next two weeks, record any experiences in which you felt tired or bored, but then gained a “second wind” of energy and enthusiasm. See if you can identify what caused this to occur.
4. Finally, after completing the preceding activity, deliberately try to tap into a “second wind,” by doing an activity such as by meditating, taking a brief nap, or engaging in a focused physical activity like yoga. Describe the result of your effort.
As an amusing historical footnote to James’ essay, it’s fascinating to discover that its 1914 Boston publisher felt obligated to include this disclaimer: “Though it would seem that the sane and simple message of this essay could not be misconstrued, the fact that it has been wholly misunderstood in newspaper comments warns us to preface it by stating that it does not counsel all persons to drive themselves at all times beyond the limit of ordinary endurance…(nor does it advocate) the use of alcohol and opium as stimulants in emergencies.”
Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org