All Work and No Rest Makes Everyone Dull


If someone recently asked you how you’re doing and your gut wanted your mouth to reply “Shitty,” you don’t have to look beyond Facebook or Twitter or run into an actual friend to know you’re not alone.

These days we know all too well which direction that toilet called The Economy swirls, and accompanying it how much more we work, how much less we see daylight and how many goals we’re putting off for another day (or life). Underrated in our lives is a little thing called rest. We know how important sleep is, but rest doesn’t quite make the headlines. Studies show we’re as busy as ever and don’t rest as much as the rest of the industrialized world, compromising our quality of life. Are we doing it wrong?

Just ask Lithuania. Last October the country’s workers tied for the world’s greatest number of average vacation days per year (41) with Brazil, a calculation by consulting firm Mercer. Whereas we in the U.S. stand proud with our workaholism and our if-you’re-lucky average of 25 vacation days per year (or ten for those whose jobs only provide Memorial Day and its cousins off) and wonder why we keep running into Brits (36 vacation days) whenever we do make it out of the country.

We can’t do much to change the quantity of days we get off, but what of the quality? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of bazillion-copy-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love made this observation:

We all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don’t really know how to do nothing.

Sound familiar? We don’t ditch our phones at the beach. We’re giddy at the idea of Wi-fi on airplanes. We can’t drive in cars or sit on trains or crap without cell phone Sudoku. We tweet at weddings. Why interact with our kids when they have a better relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine? Yes, we start entertaining ourselves young. The more serious question is whether we ever stop.

Auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2007 projected that America’s entertainment industry – the world’s largest – would be worth $726 billion in 2010. That’s more than 170 times what we donated to Hurricane Katrina charities, according to watchdog group Charity Navigator. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainment, what it doesn’t offer is a chance for us, in our little remaining free time, to unplug, unwind and disengage. We know how sluggish our computers would get if we left them turned on or for weeks at a time, yet we insist on living that way ourselves.

Research suggests our overworking ways and need for entertainment are linked. A 2006 article published by University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business suggested that American esteem is directly tied to our spending. That bigger home and our fancy gadgets? Simply the fruits of all our extra working hours. Europeans get a kick out of proving they had the most leisurely holiday, whereas we hope to be the envy of our social groups by obtaining stuff and bragging how many hours we worked. Even on vacation, for us it’s not how great the beach was as much as the number of excursions we packed into our time away. Then, only half-jokingly, we say we need vacations from our vacations.

It’s fair to say we take no pride in relaxation. We even feel guilty for it. Lazy we are not, but we now know as long as work trumps everything else in life, Crazy isn’t far behind. A study published in March confirmed that our lack of rest is indeed hurting our minds. “Our data suggests that if you are not giving yourself a break, you are hindering your brain’s ability to consolidate memories and experiences,” explained neuroscientist Lila Davachi to the London Telegraph. iPhone addicts: you’re on notice.

Ask anyone what they consider necessary for good quality of life and you’ll get answers as diverse as New York City. But they still probably won’t include “rest.” We don’t often consider it, yet it’s hard to deny many of us found a comrade in Ron Livingston’s character Peter from the cult film Office Space, who famously declared if he had a million dollars he’d do absolutely nothing. “I would sit on my ass all day,” he said. It’s all too poignant that his friend replies, “You don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man.”

Rest is free, and according to brain specialists like Devanchi, it’s also good for you. So drink up as much as you can. At the very least, taking a few minutes every day to reflect peacefully can remind us we still have our own thoughts, our own goals unrelated to work, and that we do have control over our lives, even when times are shitty. To deny that down time is important is to deny our lives need anything more than job fulfillment. And that would just be pathetic.

Have you had your break today?