The im­por­tance of be­ing idle

Spend­ing time do­ing noth­ing gives us space to make sense of our lives

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

ANEW study on the so-called ‘sur­vival of the slug­gish’ caught my at­ten­tion last week. Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Kansas looked at 300 mil­lion species of mol­lusc and con­cluded that “low main­te­nance” species that use less en­ergy are more likely to sur­vive.

It didn’t take long for the study to gain trac­tion on the in­ter­net. What was in­ter­est­ing, how­ever, was the lan­guage that was used. While the sci­en­tists de­scribed these species as ‘slug­gish’ and ‘las­si­tudi­nous’, the writ­ers break­ing down the study for the lay­man went for ‘lazy­bones’, ‘couch po­tato’ and ‘slacker’.

It was proof, if any was needed, that idle­ness gets a very bad rap in­deed.

Caught in the busy­ness trap, we tend to think of idle­ness as shame­ful and self-in­dul­gent. Why lie on the couch when you could be do­ing mean­ing­ful, life en­hanc­ing things like check­ing Face­book and get­ting to in­box zero? Why lie awake in bed for half an hour when you could be on the tread­mill in the gym?

The minute we get a spare mo­ment, we rush to fill it up. Must not waste time — even if it means cram­ming it with the in­con­se­quen­tial.

In the age of max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­ity, we mea­sure our self-worth by how much we can do in one day, just as we con­sider desk-bound work the only real means of progress.

Even hol­i­days are linked to work these days. We go away to recharge the bat­ter­ies so that we can op­er­ate on full power when we ar­rive home.

Philoso­pher Ber­trand Rus­sell wrote about the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of work in his es­say In Praise of Idle­ness. “I want to say, in all se­ri­ous­ness, that a great deal of harm is be­ing done in the mod­ern world by be­lief in the vir­tu­ous­ness of work and that the road to hap­pi­ness and pros­per­ity lies in an or­gan­ised diminu­tion of work,” he wrote.

Our own Brian O’Con­nor, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin, gave the sub­ject a fresh take in Idle­ness: A Philo­soph­i­cal Es­say, which was pub­lished ear­lier this year.

“From the age of En­light­en­ment on­ward, philoso­phers, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and moral author­i­ties of many kinds have tried to con­vince us that work is one of the most im­por­tant op­por­tu­ni­ties for free­dom,” he wrote in Time magazine.

“We come to be­lieve that be­ing idle at all is, some­how, the an­tithe­sis of free­dom,” he added. “But we would do well to think about idle­ness more, and rather dif­fer­ently from how we do.”

The good news is that peo­ple are think­ing about it more — well, au­thors at least. As a coun­ter­point to the pro­duc­tiv­ity craze, a raft of new books that cel­e­brate idle­ness have ar­rived on book­shelves.

In Praise of Wast­ing Time by MIT physi­cist, Pro­fes­sor Alan Lightman, looks at the in­flu­en­tial thinkers who al­lowed them­selves time to do ab­so­lutely noth­ing; The Art of the Wasted Day by unashamed day­dreamer Patricia Hampl in­vites us to get lost in thought, while artist Ro­man Mu­radov’s On Do­ing Noth­ing is an il­lus­trated book of mus­ings on why idle­ness is es­sen­tial to the cre­ative process.

There’s even some­thing for younger read­ers: Beatrice Ale­magna’s pic­ture book, On a Mag­i­cal Do-Noth­ing Day, was named the New York Times Best Il­lus­trated Book of the Year 2017.

These books don’t give di­rec­tions on how to be idle — be­cause frankly we don’t need much guid­ance on how to lie in a park and stare at the sky or sit out­side a cafe just to watch peo­ple go by. They do, how­ever, of­fer ro­bust ev­i­dence on the ben­e­fits of do­ing noth­ing from time to time, just as they make a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween quiet con­tem­pla­tion and mind­less ab­sorp­tion in day­time TV.

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween leisure time and idle time: they’re both ben­e­fi­cial but we need the in­ner si­lence to truly join the dots.

In this news­pa­per last week, psy­chother­a­pist Joanna For­tune spoke about the pit­falls of over­bur­den­ing chil­dren with af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties. “If chil­dren don’t ex­pe­ri­ence bore­dom,” she said, “they don’t have time to as­sim­i­late ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened in their day, they don’t get to process their emo­tions through play and they don’t get to dis­cover what it is they like to do and what gives them plea­sure”

She’s right. Young or old, we need pe­ri­ods of idle­ness to con­sol­i­date in­for­ma­tion, make con­nec­tions and so­lid­ify mem­o­ries. Para­dox­i­cally, it can boost pro­duc­tiv­ity too.

So what’s stop­ping us? Well, quite a lot ac­tu­ally. We are so­cially con­di­tioned to be­lieve that work is its own re­ward (shout out to the Pu­ri­tans); the dizzy­ing pace of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy means there is al­ways an email to be an­swered or a text to be sent, and the ris­ing cost of liv­ing makes idle­ness seem like a lux­ury we can’t af­ford. The truth is that it’s not as easy as just down­ing tools and tak­ing to the sofa. We have to ex­am­ine our un­der­ly­ing be­liefs around busy­ness and idle­ness first.

First, ask your­self hon­estly if you are prov­ing your worth through be­ing busy (the give­away is that you feel re­dun­dant when you’re not).

If you’re the type of per­son who clears out a cup­board the mo­ment you get a spare sec­ond, re­mem­ber that it would be more worth­while to make a cup of tea and stare out the win­dow. The cup­board will still be there later on, and you’ll prob­a­bly have more en­ergy for it too.

Fi­nally, it’s worth look­ing at the cu­ri­ous di­chotomy of time and money. We do ev­ery­thing in our power not to waste time but we have no is­sue with wast­ing money if it saves a few ex­tra min­utes. Yet money, for the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, is a token rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the time they put into earn­ing it.

When we look at it this way, we re­alise that less re­ally can be more, es­pe­cially where idle­ness is con­cerned.

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