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Personality and self

‘We are busy about everything’

Claudia Hammond is an award-winning broadcaster, author and psychology lecturer. Her latest book, The Art of Rest, examining the science behind our struggles to rest and relax, is published on 5 December by Canongate. Our editor Jon Sutton asked her about it.

19 November 2019

You write 'What could be more restful than reading a book about rest?', but actually the first chapter on mindfulness wound me right up. Am I unusual in getting agitated about rest?
People do seem to have a love hate relationship with mindfulness. Some people wouldn't be without it. Others feel it's offered as a panacea without the evidence that it can help everyone. But you are not at all unusual to feel agitated about rest. In the world's largest study on rest, The Rest Test, devised by psychologists at Durham University which I worked on as part of a residency at Wellcome Collection, when we asked people which words they associated with rest, the results were intriguing. Although some used words such as dreamy or serene, others said guilty or fidgety or annoying. So you are not alone. Resting isn't always easy. We need to value it more, to give ourselves permission to rest. 

What has changed around rest?
In the 19th century, if you were rich, you might indicate that by enjoying a life of leisure in the city and then retiring to country retreat for some more…. leisure. Now when we say we are very busy, it might well be true, but it also conveys status. It shows that we are important and valued.

The advice to 'stop fetishising busyness' struck a chord. One of my favourite quotes is Henry Thoreau's 'It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?'
We are busy about everything. As well as work and maybe childcare, there is also plenty of non-work admin – renewing insurance, wondering whether we're paying too much for our electricity, even doing something relaxing like going out for meal for friends involves plenty of admin to find a date and book a table. And the moment we get through our to-do list (if we ever do) then there's social media to catch up with. We turn to our phones and as often as not, we then get more jobs too. It's no wonder that in our (admittedly self-selecting) sample, two-thirds of people wanted more rest. Time use surveys suggest that in fact we don't have less free time than people used to have, but it doesn't always feel like that.

Can pretty much anything be 'restful'? You mention football / running… and I do find it interesting that the activity you describe as most restful for you, i.e. gardening – or 'outdoor housework' as I call it – would be right at the bottom of my list.

Bottom? You are missing out Jon!  

It's true that the same activities do not feel restful for everyone. My top three are gardening, going out with friends and running (or maybe watching TV is I'm being honest). But socialising with friends didn't even appear in our top ten. A restful activity can involve effort. Eight per cent of people told us they found running restful; some say they can't rest their minds until their body is tired out. So I've tried to identify what makes an activity restful for an individual. The ideal activity seems to give you a break from other people, to allow your mind to wander and to distract you from your worries, without making you feel so lazy or guilty that the restfulness is ruined. Sometimes it's stopping doing another activity that makes you feel rested. So when I run, it isn't truly restful at the time. Often it's unpredictably hard, but afterwards it's lovely!

Does life inevitably get less restful as you get older? You write about a study where students took a 90-minute bath in the middle of the afternoon, whereas I now tend to divide my life into 'Jobs / No jobs [i.e. sleep]'.
I think some young people would disagree! Earlier this year a Buzzfeed article called 'how millennials became the burnout generation', explaining why young people were overwhelmed by their to do lists, went viral. People of any age can be confronted with endless list of jobs. Insecure housing where people in their 20s and 30s constantly have to move flats, does of course bring with it huge amounts of admin. Meanwhile parents trying to juggle work and kids have their own very long list of jobs. So I think many of us feel busy – the tasks are just different at different ages. 

'The Rest Test' itself forms the structure... but are you confident that was fairly representative of how the population as a whole rest? A whole chapter on baths possibly suggests a Radio 4 slant…
Because it was launched on Radio 4 I did wonder whether everyone might put down radio as their favourite restful activity. But the survey was widely covered in the newspapers and on TV, as well as on the World Service, so although the sample was of course self-selecting we did see a wide range of people take part. And of course some of the fanciest new homes have wet rooms with rain showers and not a bath in sight :)

The book presents a 'Whatever works for you' approach, but are there foundations you think everyone should adopt?
Yes, people can choose whichever activities work for them, but I think there are principles that can be applied. First you need an activity that allows you to give yourself permission to rest. There's no point in prescribing yourself 15 minutes to lie on the sofa if you're going to feel guilty and fidgety. The ideal activity absorbs you enough to distract you from your worries, but might also allow your mind to wander. It's worth thinking about whether physical or mental rest is what you really yearn for, or how they might connect for you.

You say you were surprised that reading came out top of all the restful activities… but were you also pleased? It's notable how well the book draws on literature (as well as other forms of culture).
Well, naturally I wanted gardening to come top so that I could do a whole programme broadcast from my garden. But it always nice to see any evidence that reading might be beneficial.

Were there any omissions from the top 10 that surprised you?
I was surprised that socialising with friends and family didn't come high, even for the people who scored high on extraversion. We've long been told that extraverts gain energy from being with other people. But maybe they just enjoy socialising, rather than finding it restful.

I was struck that the top five activities are all activities people often do alone. There is plenty of research on the psychological value of connections with other people, but maybe as long as we know we have those connections, we still sometimes yearn to be alone. As one person put it to me after our next study, The BBC Loneliness Experiment, the opposite or loneliness is wanting some time alone.

How are you finding writing popular psychology books in the age of the replication crisis? I notice you had to write 'The study was far from perfect' quite a lot!
I'm fascinated by the replication crisis, but I have to admit that because a book takes so long to write, I'm not delighted when I've written many pages describing a particular experiment, only for  several failures to replicate to come out a month later. Eventually the book gets printed and each time I see that there's a new failure to replicate on the BPS Research Digest, I hope that it's not a study that's already in the book. Having said that, I want people to know how much good research is still out there, so I'm not giving up on communicating psychology.

I loved your description of psychologist Russ Hurlburt as a 'daydream catcher', and there are real insights into the life and work of other psychologists too. How did you find working with academic psychologists in the Hubbub project?
I did love doing research when I was a postgrad and so it's felt like a real privilege to work on research with psychologists in Hubbub and since then on The BBC Loneliness Experiment and a third survey that's coming out soon. But it also reminds me what hard work research is. I get the luxury of doing the fun bits of discussing what to put in it and then talking about the results. The psychologists I work with put in months of hard work in between. I'm not sure I'd have been patient enough to do full-time research.

Do we differ in our need for rest? You quote Henry Thoreau – 'I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust.' If so, where do you sit on the spectrum?
We do seem to yearn for different amounts of rest (which of course might differ from what we need). I constantly claim to long for more time to rest, but I also can't resist saying yes to all the interesting things people ask me to do. From New Year until Easter I worked on my book for both days of every weekend except one in order to get my book on rest finished. So I'm not brilliant at resting, but after writing this book I am trying harder. I'm determined that one day I will go to the cinema on a weekday afternoon, just because I can… one day.

- Find out more about the book, and much more from Claudia Hammond in our archive.