The Art of Rest

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Roar writer Alex Blank on the art of resting, and society’s obsession with being busy.

Busy seems to be our default. We use that word as a reply to the still-annoying ‘How are you?’ without thinking, and we don’t have to ruminate on it, as it usually tends to be true. Personally, I like it much more than the bland ‘Fine,’ but it still reveals something about us.

I recently attended an event with Claudia Hammond, the author of the book The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age. It was a part of the Action for Happiness project, which is a series of talks, courses and workshops to help us achieve peace of mind in the complicated world we live in.

The event was essentially a summary of the book and its significance in the here and now. We live in an age where being busy equals being successful, while still maintaining a veil of mystery regarding what that busyness entails. It is a funny contrast, one of static yet exposed Instagram personas on the one hand, and people lost and hidden in motion on the other. The speaker’s advice, backed up by science, is quite simple: to take more breaks.

In school, I was always that one person who preferred to get no breaks in between classes, just so I could go home as early as possible, which means I should probably rethink the way I treat time myself. What is rest, if we think about it more closely? Is it something we engage in, or a state of mind? Based on Hammond’s studies, the winning item on the list of most relaxing activities is reading. It elates the bookworm in me, but it also proves how productive we want our rest to be. Since reading is a cognitively active thing to do, it is established as a guilt-free way to spend our time. Does that mean we indeed are incapable of doing things disinterestedly?

Thankfully, that’s not the case yet. Other items on the list’s top ten included walking, being around nature, or even daydreaming. Those are all activities without a particular end in sight, and we can also do them simultaneously…though now I’m missing the point, since actively trying to “rest” in a few different ways at a time is just another way of multi-tasking and getting most out of everything. How is that restful?

Besides finding activities that relax us, I believe we should focus on restful living overall. There’s no point in forcing ourselves to daydream if it causes overthinking and worrying, or to read if it causes daydreaming (which may cause worrying). In Hammond’s talk, she mentioned the overview effect, in the context of how we might feel when we are surrounded by nature. We could use that analogy to change how we see our own lives, too. Instead of compartmentalising life into tasks (and we know there is a problem if a hobby becomes an item on a to-do list), we should look at our lives from a distance, as a whole. Then, decide if what we’re doing is working, and, more importantly, if we can sustain it long-term.

Out of the many constraints we cannot always avoid – time, money, other people – the one we can control is the guilt. It’s difficult not to feel guilty for watching TV when we have a peek into everyone’s allegedly busy lifestyles. But, in the end, how much we do or achieve compared to others should be insignificant. How can it be of any service to us if we don’t have enough rest of mind to appreciate it?

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