Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The art of doing nothing

I find my cat amusing as well as refreshing company because her life of utter simplicity seems based on doing absolutely nothing that can be construed as useful or productive.  And my life has always been built around getting tasks done. So I look at her in amazement.

I feel guilty doing nothing, and most people today seem insanely busy, endlessly finding things to do to occupy spare minutes, as if in a mad race with time and death.

But a recent book by Andrew Smart (Autopilot: the Art and Science of Doing Nothing) argues that we should do less, not more: idleness is not only good but essential for the brain. It is one of the most important activities in life. Talk about counterintuitive. As an American, I was influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which says, a busy  person is a happy person and idleness is the devil's workshop.

(I found a review with such extensive excerpts from the book on Shane Parrish's blog Farnam Street that I'm not sure I need to read the book itself. I am, after all, too busy with other things.)

Excessive busyness, Smart says, is bad for the brain and has serious health consequences. It "destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social--and it can damage your cardiovascular health. . . Through idleness great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness."

So daydreaming is necessary for creativity. Letting the mind rove freely and breathe is basic to anyone who wants to write.

Allowing ourselves to be idle for a day each week at least is basic to the Sabbath tradition. What about an hour or two each day? Can we do that without crippling guilt?

Smart even argues that boredom is a key to self-knowledge. Yet boredom is not the same as idleness.  I have often reflected on the ambivalence of boredom. People with too much time on their hands tend to be restless and unhappy, and the fear of running out of things to do--a common problem for kids during the long summer break--can be anxiety-producing. Is that what boredom is?

Many say that boredom is a manifestation of depression. Kathleen Norris' book on Acedia (often associated with medieval monks) goes in this direction. Does idleness lead people in a productive society like ours to boredom?  Is being bored the price we pay for happy moments of having achieved something?

The questions about the relation between idleness and boredom are intriguing and important. So, apparently, is our need to let our brains rest, not just in sleep, but in creative daydreaming.

So imitating your cat for a while each day might well be productive--but in a different sense from the one valued by the activity-driven culture. It seems that Mr. Smart is on to something important.

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