Social media pressure and relentless productivity equals the death of downtime. Here’s how to reclaim it
God, having fun is exhausting nowadays. Even if we’re not doin’ it for the ’gram, we should be smashing our PBs (personal bests) or ‘glowing up’. And why read one book when we could read the entire Booker longlist? The hobby has been replaced by the side hustle and even having a bath has been upscaled: it’s now ‘#selfcare’, and to make it count we should post an artfully shot picture of our legs. It’s all become distinctly competitive.
The drive to compete is primal – in numerous studies over the years, psychologists have found that happiness is not necessarily predicated on our successes, but on how our successes compare to those of others. The problem is, in a world where activity trackers like Fitbit and apps like Strava allow us to quantify every aspect of our free time – from steps walked to hours slept –competitiveness can become toxic, adding stress to any supposedly joyful activity.
Perhaps it’s understandable. In his 2018 book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, Brian O’Connor argues we have been conditioned to believe that ‘at work’ is the natural state of man, and ‘at rest’ is a subversion of that state – and morally reprehensible. In our ‘time is money’, world doing, well, nothing becomes a double waste and, as O’Connor points out, a mark against our character. And so we turn everything into ‘work’.
Enter: the side hustle. From starting a podcast to launching a supper club, the notion of the side hustle signals what sociologists have called the ‘commodification of leisure time’. Where once a hobby took us away from the grind, the side hustle urges us to turn our hobbies into the grind. And now, many of us feel as if we’re not fulfilling our potential unless we find a way to make money from our free time; it’s a gig economy mentality, applied to our whole lives.
And even if we’re not actively trying to side hustle, we book the hottest restaurants, curate our bedtime reading and, instead of a casual run, feel the need to compete in race after race. And, most often, we’ll post it on social media too.
As Dr Timothy Hill, who lectures in marketing at the University of Bath, explains: “Curating our online personas has become a way for us to commodify our personal experiences. We turn them into ‘influence’ and put a physical value [in the form of likes, or for those who use social media professionally, actual cash] on the pastimes whose value once rested solely on how fun and fulfilling they were.” We aren’t just having fun, we’re doing it because it helps us narrativise our lives, furthering our personal brands.
We’ve arrived at a unique juncture in history, where the boundaries between work and play are far less stable. In Idleness, O’Connor argues that turning everything into work – even play – is a driving factor behind the uptick in rates of anxiety.
It’s an idea that’s seemingly backed up by the findings of a large-scale study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, which examined the rates of perfectionism in successive generations of students from 1989 to 2016. They found millennials feel the crush of perfectionism more acutely than any previous generation. A study at Stanford University found that asking participants to think of their time in terms of its fiscal value increased their stress levels by 25%. Far from motivating, the desire to make ‘every second count’, is making us all vastly more miserable.
Here at Stylist, we say it’s time to relearn the art of doing nothing. Not ‘doing nothing in a pretty cabin in the woods which we’ll turn into an Insta story’. Just savouring an experience without thinking that it might benefit us in the future. Psychologists believe this kind of ‘savouring’ is a skill which can, and should, be honed. Letting go of the need for everything to ‘mean something’ is a way of living fully in the present – which has been shown in studies to have a profoundly positive impact on our happiness.
That’s not to say that training for a marathon might not bring us happiness; it’s more that there should be room for getting lost in a ‘pointless’ activity too. Leisure time devoted exclusively to leisure has slowly slipped from our lives.
And in 2019, it’s time to claim it back. Read on for our favourite ways to have fun…
Make time for play
Eschew social media kudos and corrosive competitiveness with these enjoyable ways to spend your leisure time
Dive into dodgeball
Duck, dive and dodge. Dodgeball is a fast-paced team sport that puts an onus on fun rather than winning – which is possibly why it has become so popular over the past five years. The teams are often mixed ability and mixed sex, and all ages are welcome, so you can pitch up, get involved and no one’s going to ask about your PBs. Win. Find your local team at ukdba.org.
Visit an urban farm
OK, bear with us – we swear that farm days aren’t just for excitable school groups. Over-stimulated, over-stretched grown-ups can also spend a day on the farm and get just as much (if not more) benefit.
For a start, any activity which brings you in contact with soil has been shown to increase levels of serotonin (certain microbes, which are inhaled as you tramp around in the mud, stimulate your serotonin production) and also: animals! Who needs a YouTube video of cute piglets when there are actual cute piglets to hang with?
Take up parkour
Forget pogoing across rooftops and climbing cranes, parkour isn’t about risking life and limb. It’s actually just the art of moving creatively through a given space. It’s a non-competitive sport that focuses on running, jumping and climbing, which is why it is often likened to childhood play. Perfect for those of us who spent our formative years on the monkey bars. Find parkour parks or facilities near you at parkour.uk.
Book a treehouse getaway
Admittedly, gone are the days when ‘treehouse’ meant rustic to the point of dilapidated. Nowadays, plumbing comes as standard, but that doesn’t mean that a weekend spent among the treetops staring at the stars won’t re-spark your sense of wonder.
Canopy & Stars offers a huge selection, from cosy hideaways for two to family treehouses with hot tubs, open-air showers and, most fun of all, slides.
Trampoline parks have been springing up (sorry) across the country for a few years now – probably because there’s something fantastically freeing about bouncing through the air for no reason other than the sheer joy of it.
If you’re hoping to do more than throw yourself around, many offer lessons (it is, after all, an Olympic sport – check out extreme.better.org.uk for more information) but really, when lessons make it feel more like work, throwing yourself around is way more fun.
Savour slow reading
The term ‘slow reading’ first came into the public consciousness around 10 years ago, and has since come to mean many things to many people. The originator – an academic and author called Lancelot R Fletcher – claimed that it was a way to delve more deeply into a text, taking time to carefully consider paragraphs and even phrases, so as to better understand the author’s intent.
Others have argued that it’s about reading around the philosophies and histories that a book engages with. However you do it, the principle remains the same: you take your book and spend some solid time with it. Not just tearing through, but contemplating what it all means and why it’s having the effect it does.
Create your own perfume
Smell is often thought of as the most evocative of all the senses, the one that can catapult us straight back to our childhood. Creating your own scent is a deeply personal experience – as our tastes are so individual – so it’s a perfect opportunity to switch off from the outside world and focus solely on your own preferences. It’s basically meditation but more fun.
Try 4160 Tuesday’s bespoke perfume workshops (£95; 4160tuesdays.com).
If you’re all about hygge and staying indoors until spring returns, try the board game Pandemic (£30). You have to work with all the other players to avert a pandemic after the breakout of a deadly virus. You either win as a team or lose as a team.
It’s fun without being wildly competitive, while the elements of teamwork and togetherness are sure to get your oxytocin (the hormone released when we feel close to each other) firing.
There’s nothing quite as absorbing as pushing LEGO bricks together. Although we used to enjoy fierce debate about whether houses should be made entirely in one colour or of randomly assorted bricks, our adult brain requires a little more stimulation. Building the Paris skyline (LEGO Architecture 21044 Paris, £44.99, johnlewis.com) is the soothing kind of fiddly.
Forget intricately iced biscuits and five-tiered Bake Off showstoppers (we’re pretty sure there’s nothing therapeutic about trying to win a Hollywood handshake), the wholesome activity of bread-baking has been proven to help people feel calmer and happier.
According to research, focusing on smell, taste and being present in what you’re creating results in significant stress reduction. Get it right, you can have a nice sandwich. Get it wrong and you can (hopefully) still feed the birds.
Images: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash, Getty Images