We’re suffering from a rest deficit, writes broadcaster Claudia Hammond in her latest book, extracted below
One of the things that distinguishes us human beings from many other animals is our curiosity. Even now that many of us have everything we need to stay alive, we still want to see what is over the next hill or across the ocean or on a distant planet. We have an urge to explore, to discover more, to find meaning. Our curiosity has been key to our survival and our success as a species, but the downside of this curiosity is that it can make us restless. We always feel we must be doing something. And we have come to define ‘doing something’ very narrowly. It means, for most of us, being busy. And not just some of the time, but all of the time.
Yet Socrates told us to beware 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. This oscillation is natural and healthy. As if we are back in that hammock, we should swing back and forth between activity and rest, taking the latter as seriously as the former.
We need to rest more. And to rest better. For its own sake, of course, but also for the sake of our wider lives. Resting is good not just for well-being but for productivity. A quick search online reveals that this is the age of self-care. Whatever you think about the term, the concept is a good thing. And the best kind of self-care, I will argue, is rest.
Yet at the moment we suffer from a rest deficit. This was perhaps the most significant finding of the major survey that informs the structure of this book. The survey was called the Rest Test, and 18,000 people living in 135 different countries chose to take part. I will be returning to the Rest Test later in this introductory chapter, but, as I say, among its most important findings was that many of us feel we are not getting enough rest. Two thirds of respondents said this was true of them and that they would like more rest. Women reported getting an average of ten minutes less time to rest each day than men, and people with caring responsibilities also had less rest. But it was younger people, both men and women, working either shifts or traditional full-time hours, who felt they rested the least.
This chimes with a general sense that younger people are stressed out and struggling to cope with life’s pressures. In January 2019 a BuzzFeed article called ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’ went viral. The journalist Anne Helen Petersen began by explaining how there were so many jobs on her to-do list that she had developed ‘errand paralysis’, leaving her unable to accomplish any of the tasks. Some older people are dismissive of this angst and label millennials derogatively as ‘snowflakes’. But I think Petersen and her generation are on to something. Certainly, I can relate to her naming her backlog of emails her ‘inbox of shame’, as I currently have 50,449 emails in my inbox. The point is wider than this, though.
There’s no doubt that being in your twenties today is challenging, with intense competition for university places and jobs, coupled with an all-too-real prospect, depending on where you live, that property prices might mean you will forever be forced to live the itinerant life of a tenant. On top of that, the prospect of this generation becoming more prosperous than their parents is vanishing and millennials can’t expect to benefit from the generous pension schemes that still exist for some of the older generation today. But for every one of these pressures, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers have their own. Millennials might be more open about confessing it, but most, if not all, of us often feel stressed out by a seemingly never-ending stream of tasks. Modern work practices, modern lifestyles and modern technology have combined and conspired to make life in the early twenty-first century ceaselessly demanding. Thanks to our clever phones, we feel forever on call, knowing that even when we do rest, that rest can be interrupted by anyone at any moment.
We want to rest more, we could rest more, we are perhaps resting more than we think we are – but we certainly don’t feel rested.
Extract taken from The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond, published by Canongate Books (£9.99)
Buy from Blackwells here
Buy from Bookshop.org here
Claudia Hammond is a guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 19 November. Register here.