Why does doing nothing make us so tired?
When I was a child, summer meant total freedom. It meant a late sunset while we played sandlot baseball to a cheering crowd of Missouri cicadas, no alarm clocks, and no structured activities. It meant long, hazy days exploring the creek behind our house, fishing and digging crawdads out of the sandy soil. It meant over-heated afternoons with friends inventing new games out of sheer boredom but reveling in doing nothing much at all. Those golden summers seemed to last forever.
It doesn’t seem to be that way anymore. Kids these days have summer school, day camps, and all sorts of organized activities to keep them busy. I’m not saying it’s worse, just different. Whether it’s better or not, though, won’t matter much this summer. It’s all been canceled. Kids are going to be experiencing the kind of summer I did, whether they like it or not.
The cancellations affect us adults, too. Long-anticipated vacations might not happen this summer. A good number of people are still not physically heading in to the office and are whiling away the extra time by taking up sourdough bread-making, , or desperately trying to focus on work-from-home tasks without the disciplined structure of the office. Family gatherings and hanging out with friends may be happening in some places, but perhaps not on the scale to which we’ve been accustomed. All this is the situation after already enduring a few solid months of sitting around at home with absolutely nowhere to go.
I’ve noticed an ironic twist. Our activity level is lower than ever, but we’re very tired. We might be even more exhausted than when our lives were jam-packed with activities. You may have noticed this phenomenon before; it happens whenever we have a day off with no responsibilities. Determined to do nothing, we sleep in, refuse to get dressed, order pizza, and binge-watch a television show, hardly moving from the couch, saving all our energy. The idea is that we’ll recharge our batteries but, instead, the opposite happens and the inactivity brings on a deep weariness.
Why does doing nothing make us tired?
Doing nothing affects us physically.
There seem to be some physical reasons for the tiredness. Our bodies weren’t made to sit around all day in a dark hole. We require movement and sunshine. Reduced activity slows the metabolism, making us feel sluggish. Lack of daylight reduces melatonin and serotonin levels, both of which are necessary for our sense of well-being. Without them, we’re prone to anxiety and depression.
It harms us emotionally, too.
Doing nothing is hard on us emotionally, too. We thrive on a sense of purpose. We want to be needed, to feel important, to know that we matter. As a father, I feel this very keenly. My kids need me. Their neediness contributes to my busyness, and they keep me on my toes, but the parenting tasks they impose on me are not exhausting. Quite the opposite, I’m energized by the sense of purpose they give me. In the same way, I look forward to going to work each day. I know my job matters and what I do is important. Even if I occasionally work a very long day, it never wears me out. Everything should be within balance, and of course if we become psychologically dependent on needing to be needed, that isn’t healthy. But generally speaking, everyone wants to wake up ready to fulfill a purpose. When we spend day after day in a row with no work, no chores, nothing to do at all, it saps our energy.
We are made to accomplish great things.
Doing nothing works against the very nature of who we are. The highest meaning of human existence is contemplation. We have the unique ability to think deeply about what we do, why we do it, who we are, and where we are going. Typically, when we have a do-nothing day, it involves long stretches of screen time with the television, going shopping, or some other thoughtless distraction. It’s an easy, comfortable way to spend a day but ultimately it’s unfulfilling.
A contemplative life might seem no different. Contemplation is quiet and unhurried, but it’s actually actually active, hard work. It isn’t easy to calm our thoughts down and observe an ant carrying a leaf across the branch. It isn’t easy to write a journal, listen to music with eyes closed, or take a walk without looking at a phone a single time. Introspection is difficult. It requires time away form work and schedules, but it’s very different than wasting a day on the couch. Contemplation is how we feed our soul. Even though it’s challenging, it provides life-giving sustenance, which is why a person who spends time in contemplation is energized.
There’s a sweet spot, a balance and harmony when we are energized but not crawling out of our skin with boredom, active but not exhausted. Work for six days, rest on the seventh. We exist for that time of rest, because contrary to popular opinion, resting is serious business. We don’t want to waste the opportunity. If we do it right, we’ll be healthier, happier, and full of energy.
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