The Art of Rest

Claudia Hammond

Canongate, £16.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

As Claudia Hammond points out, it may be Millennials who are complaining the loudest about having stressed-out lives, but we’ve all been affected. Even those of us not forced to hold down several zero-hour-contract jobs with little prospect of promotion to pay a sky-high rent because they’ll never afford their own home are still expected to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With mobile technology, there’s never a time when the boss can’t call us back into the office or get us to hammer out a report on our laptop. And yet we put up with it. Why? Firstly, because our culture teaches us to feel guilty if we’re not busy. Secondly, the fact that “In contrast to the nineteenth century, in the twenty-first century it is work, and not leisure, that gives us social status.” Thirdly, guilt again.

It’s not a healthy way to be. Health and (ironically) productivity are suffering as a result of nationwide fatigue. Even schoolchildren are taking a hit as breaktimes get squeezed to fit in more lessons. At the same time, books are selling by the truckload purporting to tell us how to relax and make the most of our me-time. But what are the most effective ways of resting in an overstimulated culture with a 24/7 economy?

That’s what Claudia Hammond asked, in her capacity as a presenter of psychology programmes for Radio 4. Eighteen thousand listeners from 135 countries responded, filling in what she called “the Rest Test”. She lists here their ten favourite ways of achieving restfulness, examining the benefits of each one by referring to surveys and scientific studies. Bear in mind that rest and sleep are not the same thing, so although “A Good Walk”, coming in at number six, can be strenuous, the important thing is that it rests the mind. Making up the rest of the chart are mindfulness (an activity in its own right and something unlikely to have appeared at all a decade ago), watching TV, daydreaming, having a bath, doing nothing in particular, listening to music, being alone, spending time in nature and, most popular of all, reading.

Many of the studies Hammond cites are hampered by the problem of correlation not equalling causation, but there’s no shortage of hard data from neurologists, revealing that the brain is just as active, if not more so, while resting as it is when concentrating, that runners have improved brain function comparable to meditators and that stimulating activity like reading an exciting novel or getting hooked on a gripping TV series is actually very calming.

The Art of Rest isn’t a how-to manual, although it has elements of one. Hammond doesn’t set out a programme to follow, or recommend particular techniques over others. But, in examining each of these pursuits in turn, she helps guide readers who have been too guilty or anxious to make time for themselves to make a start in finding the best ways to switch off.