After several weeks of lounging in pyjamas or togs over the holidays, I see a stark change in my children: they are calmer, more in tune with their body’s natural rhythm, and have a renewed positive energy that I’d pay almost anything to bottle for when the return-to-school stress cranks up. By the end of the holidays, they are skilful masters in the art of doing nothing, something the luxury of time allows in childhood.
But why should it stop there? Research shows that taking time out to wonder and ponder (or ‘lazing about’, if you will), can have a multitude of benefits at any age – we just have to consciously make it a priority as adults.
“The 9-to-5 is a prison we are used to!” says Charlotte Thaarup, Founder of the Mindfulness Clinic. “Sticking our toes outside these bars feels like we’re not conforming but that’s a good thing. It’s healthy to come out of routine and to allow ourselves to fill the time with things we enjoy doing. You only have one life, right?”
According to Dr Tim Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute, we not only need to plan to be idle, we need to totally change the way we think about idleness.
“Too often too many of us think it’s the same as being lazy or wasting time. If we think about it like this then the negative connotations make it less likely we’ll do it,” he says.
“If, however, we can recognise and focus on all the benefits that come from rest, all the very real advantages associated with being idle, then we’re more likely to make time for it and more likely to benefit from it.”
If you think a holiday is the answer to all your worries and woes, you’re not quite on the money. Finnish researchers found that the benefits of taking a trip wear off in a matter of weeks.
“Simple interventions actually create the biggest changes long-term,” says Charlotte. “If you’re tired, take a nap. It’s healthy to break routine.”
A lazy 20-30 minute nap does indeed do good things for you – research shows it can clear your mind, regulate your mood and even lower your blood pressure. “We can’t be ‘on’ all the time,” says Dr Sharp. “There’s a well-worn modern cliché that just as we need to plug in our devices each night to recharge, so too do we need to find ways so that we humans can recharge. And that typically comes from taking time out to rest and slow down.”
A 2011 study found that we are most likely to think about the future when our attention is at rest, so idleness improves our ability to find a cracker solution to a niggling problem.
“When our brains are in the Default Mode Network, or the resting state, we are able to integrate new concepts and ideas,” says Charlotte.
“A good example of this is when we’ve been thinking hard about something and can’t seem to solve the challenge and, while in the shower, the penny drops.”
Unproductive time away from work can actually help us cope with stress.
“When we are in our busy autopilot mode we see the world through the eyes of doing tasks, making money, taking risks and reaping rewards,” says Charlotte.
“But there are many different perspectives through which we can see life. A shift in perspective is really good for mental health and to allow us to see the areas in our lives that need to change.”
Being busy is rarely the status indicator we have come to think of it as. “It’s hard to be happy if you’re literally ‘sick and tired’,” says Dr Sharp, who feels that time out is crucial to our happiness because we need energy to motivate ourselves to achieve our dreams and goals.
“Slowing down helps us realise or remember what’s really important,” he says. “Being more mindful of these values and priorities is definitely important for living a meaningful and valuable life.”
According to Charlotte, being idle is not just good for your physical health, it’s good for your love-life too. “We tend to live much of our life in ‘drive’ mode, meaning our focus is on ‘me and my task’. That is not a problem in and of itself, except that we are not relationship-focused in that mode,” she says.
“We can then become so task-focused that our loved ones are seen as a distraction in getting where we want to go. That’s not good for empathy or maintaining a healthy relationship.” Charlotte recommends setting aside time each week (without chores or screens to distract) to spend time relaxing with your loved ones.
An idle mind will seek a toy, so it’s often the stimulus we need to be creative. One UK study found that daydreaming boosts creativity because these parts of the brain are more active while we’re in daydreaming mode than when we are busy with a focused task.
“When we’re so busy so much of the time our brains become overwhelmed, and often that means they just go into survival mode,” says Dr Sharp. “This isn’t all bad, because we do need to survive. But it means that often we’re not allowing ourselves the opportunity to think of new ways of being or living. Taking time out and allowing our ‘idle’ brains to be a bit more creative can also contribute to more positive emotions and fulfilment.”
That said, sometimes daydreaming can lead to ruminating, which means you need to switch gears and practise mindfulness (a fancy word for actively focusing on the present moment).
“This gets technical but when we’re dealing with frustration or sadness, we can be with it as a story or as a sensation,” says Charlotte. “In mindfulness practice, you acknowledge the feeling without asking yourself why you’re feeling that way because, as soon as you ask why, you can easily be taken down the rabbit hole. Mindfulness is learning to just deal with the feeling or sensation as it visits and acknowledging it without feeding it with a story. Practising this regularly can change your life.”