When was the last time you felt truly relaxed? Award-winning presenter Claudia Hammond explains how we can access the long-lost skill of guilt-free rest – and the extraordinary impact that it has on our minds.
In today’s frenetic, Insta-worthy world, we’ve become hooked on a culture of busy. If we’re not working our socks off at work, we’re cramming our weekends with friends (virus-dependent of course), cooking, workouts or other forms of “doing” and productivity.
Yet what we need more than ever, according to psychology author Claudia Hammond, is rest. Appearing at the Stylist Live @ Home festival this weekend, the award-winning presenter of Radio 4’s All In The Mind delves further into this enigmatic value.
Rest, Hammond explains, is not the same as sleep: it’s a conscious act. And, although it is experienced differently for every person, it can be defined as something “intentional, temporary, restorative, relaxing and you feel better afterwards”.
Hammond argues that our obsession with busy is eroding rest from our lives: but we need it just as much as sleep – another lifestyle value that has recently been propelled into mainstream awareness.
“Being busy has become something of a badge of honour,” Hammond says, in a far-reaching discussion with Stylist’s Jazmin Kopotsha. “I think that we think that we shouldn’t rest, in a way […] we know know that sleep is good for us, and I think we need to start thinking about rest in the same way. But the trouble is, being busy has become associated with status: because I’m busy, I must be in demand, I must be wanted. We do tend to associate business with success.”
In order to understand the issue in more detail, Hammond partnered with the Wellcome Trust in a large-scale “Rest Test”, surveying 18,000 people from 135 countries around the world on their rest habits. The results, discussed on All In The Mind, as well as Hammond’s new book, The Art of Rest, paint a fascinating picture of our collective need for relaxation – as well as the ways in which we resist it (9% of people feel guilty for taking rest time).
Here are five powerful takeaways on the cognitive and emotional impact of rest, and how best to access it – as told by Hammond at Stylist Live, and explored further in her book.
1. Rest tends to be something we do best on our own
Although we traditionally associate downtime as spending time with others – grabbing a coffee, heading to the pub, having sex – the Rest Test Hammond was involved in found that the things people felt were most relaxing (rather than enjoyable) were all things that we tend to do alone: like having a bath, or reading.
This seems odd when we’re all missing other people right now under lockdown; but it makes sense when you think about the mental capacity demanded by friends or family in the ordinary swing of things.
“In normal life, what people want in order to rest is slightly a rest from other people,” Hammond says. “Because however lovely other people are, you’ve still got to consider them all the time when you’re with them. You’ve got to think, ‘what are they thinking, are they OK, what did they think of what I just said?’”
Being alone allows us to switch off from that constant internal chatter.
2. Rest means different things for different people
Rest should never come with a sense of pressure, Hammond explains. For example, if a rest is enforced, it won’t feel relaxing in the way that it should: which explains why many people may be unable to rest – and instead feel constantly stressed – under furlough.
In a similar vein, some of us may have felt pressure to take part in “restful” activities such as baking banana bread, or learning another language, under the first round of lockdowns earlier this year; to “do lockdown well”. But – while many people do indeed find baking and learning new skills relaxing – it won’t count as a rest unless it truly feels that way to you.
Another good example is simply doing nothing. While this did rank as a form of relaxation in the Rest Test, Hammond acknowledges that some people find sitting alone quite stressful (an extraordinary study on the topic found volunteers actually preferred having mild electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts for a period of time).
Whether it’s gardening, painting or pottering, it’s entirely up to you to choose the activities that allow your mind to wander, and feel rested.
3. Find your prescription for rest throughout the day
While you might not always find time for a long rest in your working day, Hammond is a big fan of what she calls a “micro-break”. This could be anything from stretching out for a few minutes in a dark room to half an hour listening to a podcast or playing the piano.
The more time the better, really, but even a snippet of rest time will charge up your mental capacity and leave you feeling better, and more productive as a result (multiple studies have shown rest to be a powerful elixir for memory).
For this reason, says Hammond, it’s actually a great idea to take a break before a big deadline, rather than powering on through. Our instinct is to “just press on” and reward ourselves with a tea and a sit-down after whatever project we’re ensconced in is completed: but the quality of work would likely be higher if we could take that breather beforehand.
Watching TV can also count as rest time (though not if you binge for hours, which has the opposite effect) and the Rest Test found that this is an activity that actually can be better in the company of others; since there’s no pressure to actively engage.
4. Awe walks can help you get into the habit of rest
If you’re a very busy or impatient kind of person who can’t get your head around the idea of rest, Hammond recommends you ease yourself in with a simple daily routine like an “awe walk”.
“It’s going for a walk; it doesn’t have to be in nature; in can just be in the street or in an urban environment; it doesn’t matter,” says Hammond. “And looking round for something that strikes awe into you; that makes you have that child-like wonder again.
“It can be the red and orange leaves on a tree, or it can be, ‘how on earth does someone make a building that tall?’ […] Anything that helps you look at the bigger picture and take the perspective away from you.”
A new study from US San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin found that just 15 minutes of awe walks a day can make a notable boost to prosocial emotions such as compassion and gratitude.
5. Reading and bedtime stories are great for winding down
We’re not in the habit of breaking off our work day to read a few chapters of our favourite book – but we may be better off if we did. Reading ranked as the number one most restful activity in the Rest Test of 18,000 people; and as Hammond points out, this doesn’t have to mean super-focused session with War and Peace; it could be a mindless, hazy kind of reading, too.
“Reading can be a really good jumping off point for mind-wandering and for daydreaming,” Hammond says. “[It can be about] thinking about other people’s lives and getting away from your own completely. I think that’s why people might find it so restful; that it takes them away from those thoughts that might be going round and round in your head.”
Since rest is partly about giving yourself permission to escape, and relax without guilt, it’s also a good idea to separate up your work and rest space – especially given many of us are now blurring the boundaries by working from home. Hammond suggests having a separate room for work if you can, or else removing all visible traces of work when you enter rest time.
Finally, while rest is not the same as sleep, one can influence the other: and so if you’re having a hard time winding down before bedtime, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of listening to something soothing, like the soporific stories you can find on apps such as Calm.
Want to find out more about Claudia Hammond’s life-changing philosophy of rest? Tune into her inspiring discussion, along with many other motivational talks, at the Stylist Live @ Home festival running all this weekend. Tickets are still available for £15, and you can watch the entire show on catch-up at a time that suits you, at any point up to 29 November. Stylist Live @ Home guests will also get first access to discounts across our curated shopping collections courtesy of The Drop. All tickets include a £1 donation to Women for Women International.
This holiday season, athletic apparel brand lululemon invites you to celebrate the everyday moments that matter most. The message? Let The Feeling Flow—a campaign that encourages daily moments of connection through acts of kindness to yourself, others, and the community. Follow on Instagram or visit lululemon.co.uk to find out more.