The value of doing nothing

For one glorious day this summer, I did nothing.

Well, not literally nothing. The cat was fed, a couple of reasonably nutritious meals were prepared and the dishes were stacked in the dishwasher.

But I didn’t do anything that could remotely be defined as constructive. And it felt so, so good. So good, in fact, that I want to do it again.

Most of us, truth be told, don’t have days like this very often. Why not? Guilt, I suppose. Busyness. A sense of responsibility. Sheer necessity.

Like just about everyone else I know, my life has all these elements, and in spades. But for one day I managed to (mostly) suppress the feeling of I-know-I-really-should-be-doing-something-worthwhile and concentrate instead on the research: namely, that science tells us it’s good to switch off the circuits every so often and let our brains lapse into the calm, quiet space of nothing.

There’s biology behind this. The human brain is an incredibly complex organ, containing billions of nerve cells that process millions of information bits per second. A certain amount of stimulation is good. It’s well known, for example, that infants need physical, mental and emotional stimulation early in life for optimal brain development.

But if inadequate stimulation is bad, so is too much. And let’s face it, the American environment is overripe these days with stimulation, from background noise to occupational workloads to the perpetual presence of laptops and Twitter.

When the American Psychological Association conducted a survey of 1,200 adults last year, 39 percent said they were more stressed than the year before. Work-related stress was the major culprit, with relationships and health problems not far behind.

More tellingly, however, many people seemed to perceive this as normal. “Previously it was seen as something to be fought against,” Marie Dacey, of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, told USA Today earlier this year. “People are not identifying stress as stress but as part of the norm. Our culture really applauds and rewards that.”

No wonder we often feel guilty for slacking off; it makes us look, well, like slackers.

There are bigger things to worry about than the guilt factor, though. Researchers have found that chronic stress, even the everyday kind, can have a negative effect on portions of the brain that govern impulse control, emotions and physiological functions such as insulin and glucose regulation. Over time, the cumulative impact can literally shrink the brain and leave it more vulnerable when a major stressor or adverse life event occurs.

Doing nothing allows us to step back from the constant stimulation and just let the brain relax. Thoughts, memories, impressions swim up aimlessly without the pressure to do something about them. The racing mind finally has a chance to slow down, and with this slowing down comes more clarity, more attentiveness to the here and now.

As a writer, I’m especially intrigued by some of the research suggesting that creativity and innovation are born out of those quiet times when the brain is meandering and then — eureka! — there’s a flash of insight.

Some fascinating long-term study by the Harvard Business School has found that people are usually most creative in the workplace when they have fewer distractions and interruptions, have deadlines but not intense time pressures, and can allow their ideas to “incubate” while working on other tasks.

Doing nothing may look superficial on its surface, but underneath this tranquil surface a whole lot of beneficial things are happening — and that’s not nothing.

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