The Art of Rest

Out of necessity, the magnificent Hay Festival is online this year. One of today’s sessions was by Claudia Hammond, a professor of psychology and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s programme All In The Mind.

She was talking about her new book The Art of Rest. I found it fascinating.

To quote from the festival site:

The Art of Rest draws on ground-breaking research Claudia Hammond collaborated on – ‘The Rest Test’ – the largest global survey into rest ever undertaken. It was completed by 18,000 people across 135 different countries. Much of value has been written about sleep, but rest is different; it is how we unwind, calm our minds and recharge our bodies.’

So much of what she said related to The Woman At The Next Table, from being alone to taking a rest with a coffee.

The project asked participants: What is the most relaxing activity in your life?

‘Chatting with friends’ came in at number 19 in the Top Twenty. ‘Socialising with friends’ was number 13. Not as high as you were expecting?

‘Being alone is part of the essence of rest,’ Claudia Hammond said. ‘There is something restful about not being with anyone else.’ I can agree with that. While it’s lovely to chat with a friend over a coffee, it takes energy. You have to be alert – listening, empathising, responding. Suddenly there’s another set of emotions to consider. It might be enjoyable and relaxing, but it’s not exactly resting.

When you are with someone, you cannot escape into daydreaming – a very restful practice, according to the book. Daydreaming is a great way to de-stress. It’s a way of escaping your worries and entering into another, calmer world.

This raises a question… To get the most benefit from our solitary beverage, should we forget writing to simply daydream instead?

Maybe, but daydreaming does not always come easily. Generally speaking, we are trained to admire busyness, and ‘doing nothing’ is dismissed as laziness. As a result, many of us find it hard to be inactive. We like to strike a balance between productivity and pleasure. I have seen that in myself, listening to the Hay sessions. To stop working for an hour in the middle of a working day seems indulgent, even though it can help me enormously in my work, giving me the inspiration to write this blog post, for example. I have solved this by working on a tapestry while listening. The simple act of doing something over-rides any feeling of guilt.

Here’s a question for you.

When you are busy in town, at what point do you stop for a coffee break? At the end, when you’ve done all you came to do? Or midway through?

A German study found that people tend to reward themselves with a rest once a task is done. But it actually makes far more sense to take a break halfway through. A rest will sharpen your cognitive powers and boost your energy levels. You will return to your task with renewed vigour.

But I thought: surely that doesn’t work with town/shopping trips? Who has a coffee when they’re finished and about to head home? Do you? I am definitely one for stopping midway to gather my thoughts and rest my feet!

The talk today did not reveal the whole Top Twenty Most Restful Activities. You need to read the book for that. But Claudia did reveal what came out number 1.


58% of respondents said it was the most restful activity in their life. (I should point out, this was not a simple survey. Apparently it took forty minutes to complete)

It’s easy to see why. Reading ticks many of the desirable boxes. 

  • It is something you do alone
  • It provides an escape from the everyday world
  • It provides a perfect jumping-off point into daydreaming

The project found content makes no difference. Non fiction works just as well as fiction.

Reading came top in every country except three. In Canada and India, being in the natural world was number 1. In Germany it was being alone.

What would your number 1 be?

2 thoughts on “The Art of Rest

  1. This is fascinating, I have been learning about pacing and resting as a method to help balance the extreme fatigue of CFS/ME, and I have been finding it difficult to rest without feeling guilty so I tend to sleep. I am now trying to find gentle activities to do whilst I rest, some that help me to ‘daydream’ and others that make me feel busy whilst I listen to a talking book, I still find the act of reading can be fatiguing for me. My rest is often accompanied by ‘writing’ in my head and I actually find this quite restful but unfortunately the perfect wording seems to elude when I come to write it down.

    1. Hi Stella re “perfect’ wording, I know exactly what you mean. That is why I enjoy free-form writing so much. It feels like it’s coming from the heart rather than the head x

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