The Rewards of Relaxation: Why Slowing Down Is Healthy

How idleness and slowing down is good for mental and physical health.
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The Culture of "Should"

Here's what my husband does when he isn't working or doing something useful around the house: He reads. He lies on the sofa and contemplates the fire. He writes a letter -- by hand! He meets a friend for a beer. He sits on the front steps and watches the dogs chase bumblebees or the kids bombard each other with water balloons. He stands in the yard and chats with neighbors who are walking their babies or their dogs. He plays the guitar. He naps.

Here's what I do when I'm not working or doing something useful around the house:

Hold on, I'm thinking.

The sad truth is, I'm almost never not working or doing something useful around the house. If I talk on the phone, I'm wearing a headset and folding laundry at the same time. If I meet a friend, it's more often to work out together than to sip coffee. If the kids are playing happily outside, I'm inside picking up the toys they abandoned before the water balloons beckoned. I haven't had a nap since 1998, the last year there was a newborn in the house. If it weren't for my husband calling, "Come sit on the swing with me," I wonder if I'd take any downtime at all. The closest I get to it is the hour of reading I allow myself every night, but that hour is, in fact, on my to-do list -- if I don't read, I'm so revved up that I can't sleep.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. But it's really not that my husband gets to take it easy because he leaves the drudgery to me. He's a genuinely liberated man, cooking as many meals as I do, folding at least some of the laundry, and cleaning more bathrooms than I ever have. Granted, his standards on all chores are lower than mine (our boys like to count how many boxes and cans he opens to prepare dinner), which is probably what frees him up to unwind and enjoy life a lot more than I do.

I used to be different, I swear. Before kids I had a real knack for doing nothing: I lounged in hammocks with abandon, enjoyed long Saturday mornings in bed. I don't want to be a grim, get-through-the-day kind of person, so why have I become one? And what can I do about it?

Even if free time miraculously appears in a packed schedule -- a meeting gets postponed, weekend guests cancel -- many women can't take pleasure in the unexpected bonus. "If I ever have an unclaimed evening in front of me, my mind automatically goes to the shoulds," says Ann Bishop, a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. "I should clean out the guest room, update the Christmas-card list, sort the tax receipts. I want to take a bath or read a magazine, but I've convinced myself that I don't have enough waking hours in my day to spend any time kicking back." Says Melissa Bienvenu, who helps run the family farm in Franklinton, Louisiana, "I even feel a little guilty when I play with my kids -- like I should be doing something more constructive."

Continued on page 2:  Men, Women, and Stimuli


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