The Rewards of Relaxation

The Rewards of Relaxation: Why Slowing Down Is Healthy
By Margaret Renkl

The Culture of “Should”

Here’s what my husband does when he isn’t working or doing something useful around the house: He reads. He lies on the sofa and contemplates the fire. He writes a letter – by hand! He meets a friend for a beer. He sits on the front steps and watches the dogs chase bumblebees or the kids bombard each other with water balloons. He stands in the yard and chats with neighbors who are walking their babies or their dogs. He plays the guitar. He naps.

Here’s what I do when I’m not working or doing something useful around the house:

Hold on, I’m thinking.

The sad truth is, I’m almost never not working or doing something useful around the house. If I talk on the phone, I’m wearing a headset and folding laundry at the same time. If I meet a friend, it’s more often to work out together than to sip coffee. If the kids are playing happily outside, I’m inside picking up the toys they abandoned before the water balloons beckoned. I haven’t had a nap since 1998, the last year there was a newborn in the house. If it weren’t for my husband calling, “Come sit on the swing with me,” I wonder if I’d take any downtime at all. The closest I get to it is the hour of reading I allow myself every night, but that hour is, in fact, on my to-do list – if I don’t read, I’m so revved up that I can’t sleep.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. But it’s really not that my husband gets to take it easy because he leaves the drudgery to me. He’s a genuinely liberated man, cooking as many meals as I do, folding at least some of the laundry, and cleaning more bathrooms than I ever have. Granted, his standards on all chores are lower than mine (our boys like to count how many boxes and cans he opens to prepare dinner), which is probably what frees him up to unwind and enjoy life a lot more than I do.

I used to be different, I swear. Before kids I had a real knack for doing nothing: I lounged in hammocks with abandon, enjoyed long Saturday mornings in bed. I don’t want to be a grim, get-through-the-day kind of person, so why have I become one? And what can I do about it?

Even if free time miraculously appears in a packed schedule – a meeting gets postponed, weekend guests cancel – many women can’t take pleasure in the unexpected bonus. “If I ever have an unclaimed evening in front of me, my mind automatically goes to the shoulds,” says Ann Bishop, a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. “I should clean out the guest room, update the Christmas-card list, sort the tax receipts. I want to take a bath or read a magazine, but I’ve convinced myself that I don’t have enough waking hours in my day to spend any time kicking back.” Says Melissa Bienvenu, who helps run the family farm in Franklinton, Louisiana, “I even feel a little guilty when I play with my kids – like I should be doing something more constructive.”

Men, Women, and Stimuli

This complaint is almost universal in our culture. According to Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to Be Idle, we can thank our cultural forebears, the Puritans, for the notion that every hour must spent productively. For them hard work was the route to salvation because it provided distraction from temptation. Hence the axiom “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” But if history and religion have colluded to demonize indolence and reward constant work, then why do so many men – not to put too fine a point on it – seem utterly at peace with their inner lazy bum?

“I’ve decided it’s genetic,” says Legare Vest, a wife, mother and science teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. “Somewhere on the Y chromosome, next to the anything-can-be-made-into-a-gun gene, is the pace-yourself gene. Multitasking just doesn’t seem to be in the male DNA.”

Vest is on to something, confirms Marianne J. Legato, MD, founder and director of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at New York City’s Columbia University and medical adviser to Ladies’ Home Journal. While a man may work like a Trojan at his profession, logging frantic hours at work, when he’s home, which is not (to him) a sphere for competition or endeavor, he’s able to relax completely. This biological single-mindedness also enables men to tune out a lot of unnecessary stimuli, which may explain why they can fail to notice the dust bunnies and the sink full of dirty dishes they passed on their way to the La-Z-Boy.

The female brain, by contrast, is much better able to perceive and process several impressions at the same time – a trait that is enhanced after childbirth. According to Dr. Legato, estrogen levels rise during pregnancy in a way that boosts neural interconnectivity. “Women, and particularly mothers, are capable of activating several areas of the brain simultaneously,” she says, “far more than is the case with men.” This tendency probably evolved as a survival technique: In primitive societies, if a mother couldn’t focus on a task (gathering food, for instance) and listen for her children at the same time, the family might perish. Unfortunately, multitasking has endured as a trait in those of us not at risk of either starving to death or having our infants eaten by predators. Hence we have a much harder time savoring the breaks we actually allow ourselves. As Christine Ives, a stay-at-home mom in Morrison, Colorado, puts it, “There’s always a mile-long list of tasks I need to complete, and I feel that list hanging over my head if I dare sit down.” Besides, what pleasure can we derive from putting up our feet if our multitasking brains won’t let us ignore the unfolded laundry and our culturally conditioned consciences beat us up for frittering away any of that precious time?

Relaxation’s Health Benefits

As children we recognized how good it felt to experiment with mud or lie on the grass and watch ants carry off sandwich crumbs. Now that we’re all grown up, we need to know what we’ll get out of an activity before we sign on. But aimlessness provides a significant payoff.

For starters, the problem-solving mind actually functions best during unstructured time. Think of the resting brain as an automated version of an old-fashioned card catalog: When we’re engaged in “mindless” activities – taking a stroll, listening to music, soaking our feet – our minds are free to sort through the accumulated information stored there, making connections and finding answers that a focused, directed mind is too busy to make. That’s why that bit of data you’ve been struggling to recall – the name of a childhood friend, a song lyric – often comes to you as you’re falling asleep or taking a shower. According to Hodgkinson, history is filled with examples of the intellectual bounty of idleness: Einstein launched his theory of relativity by wondering what it would be like to ride on a sunbeam; Newton discovered the law of gravity while sitting in an orchard; the premise for the Harry Potter books popped into J.K. Rowling’s mind as she was gazing out a train window. It’s not that these breakthroughs sprang out of nowhere: All these people spent years reading and researching and experimenting in their fields before the “aha” moment finally hit. Undirected, stress-free moments allow the mind to make connections it can’t make when focused on a single task, according to R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University and author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. The idle mind literally pulls together seemingly unrelated fragments of information stored in disparate regions of the brain and combines them in a way the focused mind can’t.

Relaxation also provides well-documented health benefits. Susan Wilson, a personal and business coach in Newton, Iowa, suffered recurrent health problems – sinus infections, back spasms, heart palpitations – before concluding that she had to slow down. “I suffered a lot of guilt when I decided to amend my workaholic ways,” she says. “But then the change started to have undeniably positive consequences. I really did get healthier.”

That’s because of the way stress affects both the cardiovascular and immune systems, according to Michaela Axt-Gadermann, MD, coauthor of The Joy of Laziness. Constant busy-ness engages the sympathetic nervous system, which makes the body run in high gear: Blood pressure rises, increasing the risk for circulatory disease, heart attack, and stroke, and cortisol floods the bloodstream, suppressing the immune system and impairing short-term memory. During periods of rest and quiet, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over – your pulse rate slows, you take deeper breaths, blood pressure drops – which allows the immune and circulatory systems to reset themselves to normal functioning.

Reforming Speedy Habits

As if health and creativity weren’t sufficient justification for chilling out, consider the benefit to relationships. “When we’re all racing along, trying to get to the next activity or juggling three things at once, we miss out on the very simple pleasure of being with and learning about one another,” says Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness. “And there’s a wealth of research that shows that children of parents who are constantly racing the clock, running from pillar to post, end up being stressed themselves. They’re just marinated in that atmosphere of anxiety and clock-watching and schedule obsession.” The familiar T-shirt pronouncement on this subject – IF MAMA AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY – is no joke: Allowing yourself time for a little R&R simply makes you happier, which in turn makes everyone you love happier, too.

Perhaps the best-kept secret about idleness is its almost spiritual dimension. “Doing nothing is an essential part of being a fully formed human being,” Honore says. “You need time to be active and engaged, but you also need time to float around. It’s in those moments that you ask the big questions, that you realize who you are.”

And the loveliest aspect of such floating is that it’s portable. As Honore, a reformed “speedaholic,” learned while researching his book, time spent doing absolutely nothing teaches you how to find the quiet center inside yourself that everyone needs to make it through the inevitable maelstroms. "Now, even when I’m in fast-moving moments, I have an inner stillness I didn’t have before. I’d never go back to roadrunner mode.

Wilson, the former workaholic, agrees. “What I used to call ‘wasted’ time I now call ‘invested’ time,” she says. “I’m investing in my relationships with my husband and children, and in my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Believe me, we’re all happier for it.”

Originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, August 2006.