We need to learn how to relax, without guilt | Life and style
Being busy all the time is part of the way we live. But, whether gardening, reading or spacing out on the sofa, taking time to rest is just as important. I ’m not very good at resting. When I told friends that after writing books covering emotions, time perception and the psychology of money I had started writing one on rest, their first reaction was usually, “But you’re always working. You never rest !”
More generally, if someone asks me how things are going, my stock answer is, “Fine, busy, too busy really.” But while this claim feels true of my life, how much is it also a claim to status? If you say you are busy, then it implies you’re important, you’re in demand. As the time-use researcher Jonathan Gershuny puts it, busyness has become “a badge of honour”.
In contrast to the 19th century, when the upper classes were happy to flaunt their idleness, in the 21st century it is work and not leisure that gives us social status. Think of celebrities constantly taking on new projects and posting everything they do on Instagram.
Progressing in my work as a psychology lecturer, plus presenting more radio shows and podcasts, giving more talks and writing more books, has of course been great and improved my wellbeing, but it has also increased the demands on my time and that can feel exhausting. And yet, it’s not true that I’m working all the time. Even when I’m at my desk I constantly get up to make tea and often get distracted by Twitter or Facebook (sometimes supposedly for work, but often just because I like scrolling). My desk looks out on to the street and I’m always pleased to spot other freelance neighbours out in the road, chatting. Naturally, I can’t resist going out to join them.
I’m surely not alone in yearning for a state where I’ve done everything I need to do, where all the items on my to-do list are neatly ticked off, and at last I can relax, with nothing hanging over me. Jobs done. Worries over. The problem is that I not only fail to reach this blessed state, but I constantly say “yes” to new projects and additional demands.
We yearn for rest, but feel anxious that we’re being lazy
At the heart of our attitude to rest is this ambivalence: we yearn for rest, but then feel anxious that we’re being lazy. We feel we’re not making the most of our lives and really should be doing something. And these days, for most of us, “doing something” is defined very narrowly. It means, being busy. And not just some of the time, but all of the time.
Yet as far back as Socrates we have been warned of the barrenness of a busy life. If we’re busy all the time, life lacks essential rhythm. We miss out on the contrasts between doing and not doing. Of course, the art of rest does not lie in replacing constant busyness with total inactivity. If you are unemployed or have depression, enforced rest is far from relaxing.
The state we want to reach is where we’re active and engaged a lot of the time, but we have proper breaks away from it all. Rest without guilt, rest without stress.
I spent almost two years studying rest as part of a multidisciplinary group at the Wellcome Collection on London’s busy Euston Road. The group included poets, composers, geographers, neuroscientists, historians and more, each of whom approached the topic of rest slightly differently.
We wondered whether other people found it hard to rest, too, and decided to find out not just what a few people thought, but what, as it turned out, 18,000 people from 135 countries thought. A group of psychologists from Durham University designed a survey called the Rest Test, which was launched on the programmes I present – All in the Mind on BBC Radio 4 and Health Check on the BBC World Service.
We discovered that the sense of experiencing a rest deficit is widely shared. Two-thirds of the people who chose to fill in the survey told us they would like more rest. When we asked what rest meant to them, they often used words such as restorative, sublime or precious, but they also used words like guilty and irritating.
If a lack of rest is a shared problem, is there a common solution? Can we learn from each other how to rest more and rest better?
Sometimes it’s only by exerting your body that you can rest your mind
To make one thing clear, the rest I’m referring to is not sleep. I’m talking about any time while you are awake that feels restful. This could mean lying on the sofa staring into space, but it could mean something more active. The most popular restful activity in our survey was reading. Other people chose activities that might not be seen by some as restful at all. In the Rest Test survey, 38% of the respondents said they found walking restful, another 8% listed running. Sometimes it’s only by exerting your body that you can rest your mind. People who do more exercise believe they get more rest, and in fact they do – they reported more hours of rest in the past 24 hours than people who exercised less. The point is that a restful activity doesn’t have to involve lazing around; it can involve intense exercise, but crucially it must help to relax, refresh and restore you.
In the early part of this year, I was singularly failing to heed what was emerging from the Rest Test research. Having missed the deadline for handing in my book, and with so much other work on, I only had one weekend off between New Year and Easter. I had little or no time to rest during that hectic period. But I was spending a lot of time thinking about rest and since then I have been putting these ideas into practice.
It was clear that I had to find things that were restful to me personally. I am more of an active than an inactive rester. I’ve never been one for holidays that involve more than one day lying on the beach or lazing by the pool. I soon get fidgety and want to do some sightseeing. My partner and I have started going on walking holidays. The days involve plenty of physical exertion, but they also relax my mind – and ultimately my body – wonderfully. I end each day tired but strangely refreshed.
At home, my choice is gardening. It does, of course, require effort both physical and sometimes mental (for instance, how on earth am I going to beat those slugs that have ruined my kale crop yet again?).
But for all the exertion, I find being in the garden instantly restful. Within moments of going into my tiny, standing-room-for-one-person-only greenhouse, I feel better. Almost as soon as I am digging in my raised beds, or planting out in my small front garden, I am relaxed and happy.
I’ve reframed my resting time outs as a way of protecting my mental health
So now I prescribe myself at least 15 minutes of gardening every day, even on one of my working-from-home days. In the past I would have felt guilty about being away from my desk, but now I’ve reframed the time out as a way of protecting my mental health and enhancing my wellbeing. Although I have slightly less time to work, I return to my desk feeling calmer and I end up being more productive.
In fact, I probably should make myself take longer breaks, though it’s hard to prescribe the exact amount of rest each of us should have. In the Rest Test, wellbeing levels were highest in those who had rested for between five and six hours the previous day, with levels dipping again if people rested for more than that time. To me, five hours of rest seems like a lot.
Yet it might depend on how I am defining different activities. I spend quite a lot of time waiting for and travelling by bus, train or tube. Now I try to view this time not as wasted and stressful, but as an opportunity to rest. Similarly, when I get into the long queue at the sorting office, having found yet another Sorry We Missed You card on the doormat, I now reframe that as an opportunity to take a 10-minute break during which no one can demand anything of me and I’m free to let my mind wander. If all this time is counted, along with my obvious resting periods, such as watching TV (a favourite of mine) or having a hot bath, then I’m getting closer to the optimal time.
I’m still busy, of course, and probably always will be, but I’ve learned to take rest more seriously, to view it not as a thing to do when everything else is done, but as an essential part of life.
The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond is published at £16.99 by Canongate. To buy a copy for £14.95, go to guardianbookshop.com
Topics Life and style Self and wellbeing Psychology Gardens Health & wellbeing features