When I recently read that burnout now appears in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. We live in a culture where we are constantly pushed to do more, not less, and I’m definitely guilty of having consumed the “be as productive as possible” mentality—even to the point of exhaustion.
Because of this, I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to live in Thailand after college, where I had the experience of being in a country that prioritized the concept of “sanuk” as a core value. The word “sanuk” most directly translates as “fun,” and it’s widely understood to permeate everything the Thais do.
Having a robust roster of leisure activities, and not taking work so seriously, felt like they were in direct opposition to everything I had been told about how to live my life. Thankfully, recent research in neuroscience appears to be paving the scientific basis for what the Thais know so well and what many have intuitively recognized:
More downtime is critical for your well-being and personal fulfillment.
Though it seems so simple and obvious—work less! do less! and make it fun!—I’ve still met resistance personally and from friends, all of whom have lived through many years of messages to the contrary. Therefore, I’ve tried to slowly and joyfully accumulate some of the mounting evidence for the importance of giving yourself time to remain idle. Below are some of the main reasons that have stood out to me from reading Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:
- It’s the way we’re wired. Many scientists didn’t consider studying what the brain does at rest, until one in particular noticed that interesting brain activity occurred when research participants were waiting in MRI machines. Stuck with nothing to do before performing whatever task was scheduled, the participants’ minds wandered and certain parts of their brains lit up while in the scanner. This led to the discovery of what is now known as the “default mode network.” While the concept is still relatively new and there is debate around some aspects surrounding it, there are a number of studies on this network of neural connections that lend some precedence to how researchers believe it operates.
- Nothing is truly something. It appears that default mode network actually gets to work when you’re not actively doing something. This network is now thought to be responsible for many critical brain functions, like making connections between people you’ve met so that you remember them later, sorting out past events, rehearsing new skills that you’ve learned, imagining how future events might play out and even seeing the big picture in your life. The default mode network can take over for its counterpart, the task positive network, within the blink of an eye. However, if you are constantly on the go and not giving yourself enough time to rest, your brain won’t make the switch between networks which can negatively impact your well-being.
- The brain plays while the mind’s away. The default network appears to be stronger or more active for creative individuals, pointing to the importance of creating connections between disparate events or helping with problem solving and intuition. Ever wonder why your brain conjures up a-ha moments while in the shower or doing the dishes? Some theorize that minor background “noise” or activity helps bring about these insights through the process of stochastic resonance. This phenomenon refers to the process of adding white noise to a signal to help it be better detected by a sensor, similarly scientists think that engaging in low-stress activities in a relaxed state can bump ideas into the foreground of your mind.
With all the time your default mode network does in processing your autobiographical memories and sense of self, if can help you figure out what truly matters to you in life.
So….it should be easy, right?
Having become more enamored with the idea of doing less from my time in Thailand, I gently suggested to some overwhelmed friends that they just try to sit still for 10 minutes each day to regain some sense of space. Their reactions?
“I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts.”
“I’ll jump out of my skin.”
“I just can’t.”
But then I noticed that these very same people cooed their approval of a couple that had just returned from a vacation of intentionally “doing absolutely nothing” and “loved not having to make any choices.”
When our schedules are jam-packed, I believe we get cognitively fatigued and start to see some of our default thoughts and emotions as items better swiped away and ignored, rather than approached with curiosity and lightheartedness.
I can’t help but think that the Puritan beliefs of centuries ago—which associate laziness with sinfulness—continue to shape our societal expectations of a work ethic that is rooted in self-sacrifice, in comparison to the Buddhist roots of Thai culture, which treat moments and feelings as fleeting and impermanent.
However, given that Buddhism has been around for thousands of years to teach people about their “monkey minds” which constantly jump from topic to topic while at rest, I’m still somewhat comforted that this is not just a contemporary issue, which means….
Bring on the sanuk! "How can I enjoy the process?"
One of the wonderful things I’ve learned recently from reading the book “Awaken the Giant Within” by Tony Robbins is that by asking yourself better questions, you can get better answers. Two of the five questions that he proposes when he has a problem are:
- What is great about this problem?
- How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?
I tried to follow my own advice while I wrote this blog post, taking the time to journal and converse about it while picnicking with friends in the park and planting myself at a sunny waterfront cafe to write instead of quarantining myself in the spare bedroom.
As I contemplated the trees and the sun at these two locations, I realized that we’d all do well to incorporate some more sanuk into American culture. Prioritize face-to-face relationships and social connections. Inject silliness and laughter so that things are “not so serious!” And recognize that the expectations and obligations we put upon ourselves are truly temporary in the grand scheme of things.