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The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

I had the privilege to be a guest speaker at Rotary International in the South of Holland recently. With an audience made up of big names with impressive, diverse careers – ranging from the modern day Einstein to the modern day Freud, the speech felt more like a presentation to a scientific peer-review panel than a lecture. Speaking on the topic “Recreation and Why it Matters,” to an audience who have earned their impressive badges through hard work and long hours, made for an evening of interesting discussions.

Why are our brains shrinking? 

This was the first question that was asked. Here’s a part of the answer: Over the past ten thousand years or more, evolution has munched up about an apple-sized chunk of our mighty brains. By comparison, if our bodies shrunk at the same speed, we’d now weigh no more than 30 kilograms and stand no taller than 1.4 meters.

How does science explain this unnerving statistic? Brains are energetically expensive to us. The mega-structure we carry on top of our shoulders guzzles on average a fifth of our body’s total energy. A fifth! Call this intelligent, or call it ravenous, but it’s true.

Technology has been consistently enabling us to increase production. Since the 1960s alone we have grown our GDP per capita by approximately 97 percent. The omnipresence of media and the internet are showering us daily with an equivalent amount of information that is sufficient to overload a laptop within one week.

As a result, we are metabolically challenged to sustain these demands. Something’s got to give. Our brains, as the main source of energy consumption, are the most straightforward target. The fact that we increasingly rely on external sources of information storage and processing: our telephones, computers and the cloud, moreover means that the modern human can afford this tradeoff.

These developments make recreation an ever more critical necessity for us.

How is recreation different from sleep?

This question was brought up by a reputed neurologist. He proposed that since we already sleep eight hours a night, more recreation is redundant.

This is the analogy I used to answer this question: Take the organs in our body – they function independently and automatically. We don’t wake up every morning telling them how to do their job. We don’t teach our heart how to pump blood. We don’t check the levels of enzymes in our hemoglobin each day in an attempt to monitor the performance of our pancreatitis. All of this takes place without our active, or conscious participation.

Eating, hydration and physical exercise are our active contribution to this passive, behind-the-scenes process. This active contribution is as indispensable to us being alive as the passive part. If we stopped eating or hydrating, the organism would eventually cease to function.

The same stands for sleep versus recreation. Sleep is very different from recreation. In simple terms, sleep is an extended bout of rest we relinquish our body to on a daily basis. This is when we most often lay down passively, with our eyes closed. Where sleep is the passive agent, recreation is the active one.

C.G. Jung found that sleep, and more specifically, dreaming is the immune system of our psyche. Recreation, on the other hand, is about refreshment of health and spirits through solitude, idleness, and enjoyment.

Recreation is to our brain what fasting is to our body. Just as we cannot detox our body if we do not abstain from alcohol and certain foods, we cannot detox our brain if we don’t abstain from work and distractions. To benefit from recreation, however, we must engage in it consciously and intelligently. At present, very few people know how to do this.

Besides better health, a finer mind and fewer regrets, recreation approached consciously and intelligently is the biggest wealth one can bring to a society.

Our society conflates performance with long hours and overtime. For many, the nine-to-five is merely a formality and overtime isn’t an occasional effort, but rather an accepted and regular aspect of working life.

On top of that, employers incessantly demand that we juggle concepts such as “change,” “teamwork” and “performance management”. They are seemingly presenting new opportunities for prosperity, but in reality, all of these factors combined, are currently taxing our health and is the lead reason why 95 percent of human resource leaders say that employee burnout and disengagement are an employer’s biggest nightmare in 2017.

What about those of us who love their jobs?

Coming from a gentleman who’s been in the same job for over thirteen years, this was not a surprising question. Indeed, all this vapid talk about disengagement makes that I tend to leave out the 13% of people who do enjoy their work.

These people, I would say, are the highest risk group. In fact, I was one of them before my own episode of burnout. It’s precisely because I loved my job so much that I forgot time and often prioritized finishing a report over eating, resting or sleeping.

Engaging in mindful recreation is fundamental whether we’re friends or foes to our jobs.

The question remains, however, how does one recreate intelligently? What are some examples of intelligent recreation activities? 

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