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In defence of doing absolutely nothing on holiday

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 6/08/2018 Rosie Fitzmaurice
a person swimming in a body of water © Provided by Evening Standard Limited

Most people in life fall into one of two categories: people who like to do nothing on holiday and people who like to see — “or do” — everything.

Recent research suggests that those belonging to the former category may well be a dying breed. A survey by the Association of Independent Tour Operators found that British holidaymakers are getting more active on holiday — and it’s hardly surprising given the fitness craze currently sweeping the world.

Brits are swapping beach breaks for shorter city breaks, outdoorsy walking holidays, or expert-led study tours. Bye-bye Benidorm, hello weekend of exploring in Iceland, pasta making course in Tuscany or winery tour in Bordeaux.

But there are important health benefits associated with giving yourself some proper downtime — when you literally do nothing. It's a topic that's getting more airtime these days in light of issues like burnout. Not only can it help you to de-stress and unwind, but also increase your productivity, creativity and wellness, according to the Harvard Business Review.

And a holiday provides the perfect opportunity to take some well-earned chill time.

On my last holiday I did just that. I spent an entire week on a sun lounger, and it was glorious. For seven days straight my only concern was which book to read that day, what to order for lunch and which cocktail to sip at sundowners. I came home feeling the most refreshed and recharged I had in a long time.

(Photo by Josie Kouwenhoven on Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited (Photo by Josie Kouwenhoven on Unsplash)

Yet I could only really enjoy doing absolutely nothing once I’d got over the sense of guilt I felt for not getting up at the crack of dawn every day to go and see a site, climb a mountain or discover under-the-radar beaches.

As a journalist I often feel a degree of pressure to explore a destination, sometimes beyond what I honestly feel like doing. There's an expectation that you'll see, do and try everything the place has to offer before you can really say, I’ve seen it, I can “tick it off the list.”

It was only once I’d given into the idea that this was a week of pure relaxation that I began to thoroughly revel in my idleness.

This got me thinking, why do we feel such guilt for our downtime? I work hard, socialise and workout regularly yet I felt bad for giving myself a few days off in the sun.

Brian O’Connor, a professor at University College Dublin and the author behind Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, has a few theories on why some people feel so reluctant to spend time doing nothing.

He believes that once we can better identify why we feel so guilty for being idle, we might start to feel less uneasy about it. 

“There are lots of philosophers in the modern age who tell us that idleness is a bad thing,” O’Connor told the Standard. “The modern way of living condemns idleness, they say it will prevent us from doing valuable things.

“In the past it was believed you would simply fall into degeneracy," he said.

And following his analysis of arguments from some of history’s greatest philosophers on why idleness is so bad in his new book, O'Connor concluded that they’re actually “pretty poor.”

One of the key messages of his book, he says, is that there’s actually nothing wrong in doing nothing, though added it’s more of a task to explain what’s so good about being idle.

“Many of us have hunches about what’s so very pleasant about doing nothing and detaching ourselves with everyday concerns such as how we look or measure up," he said.

(Photo by Phi Phi on Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited (Photo by Phi Phi on Unsplash)

But on the other hand, he said, people often argue that after a few days of vacation they start to feel bored which they deduce as proof that human beings are not built for doing nothing. 

O'Connor argues that they're forgetting that this is only one version of human beings that we know, there are lots of other cultures where people appear to spend a lot more time doing as little as possible.

The pressure to feel like you’re constantly achieving, even in your leisure time, he says, is especially rife among city dwellers.

“People look at each other and are always worrying if they look as good as someone in terms of their accomplishments, being idle feels uncomfortable, people worry they’ll be left behind.”

Over the last few decades he says he has observed an “enormous surge” in those who constantly say: “I’ve never been so busy,” and are proud of that fact to some degree.

There was such an invested sense in “busy lives”, he says, that when the recession came, "all of that busyness and endless competing had sewn the seed of destruction. They were so invested in non-stop activity and personal advancement, that without these conditions they felt really lost."

“Just observing that gave me a sense that the whole enterprise of work and advancement and accomplishment is probably overrated and silently dangerous,” he added.

(Photo by Max Rovensky on Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited (Photo by Max Rovensky on Unsplash)

The work hard, play hard mentality hasn't helped either. 

O’Connor says he has observed a continuity between work and leisure where the latter takes on some of the values of the former. "Work has become something harder to shake off when you’re not at a desk. People are constantly striving to do something productive like get into shape, or do something that has a reason others will admire." Meaning people are feeling under pressure even on their days off or while on holiday. But a trip away represents one of the best opportunities you'll get to switch off properly for an extended period of time, so why not go for it?

“When you take yourself away from the normal habits of life, you no longer feel the pressure of being observed,” O'Connor said, adding: "Though social media seems to ensure that the urge to be observed is endlessly satisfied."

The next time you're on holiday and tempted to do absolutely nothing for a few days, don't beat yourself up about it. It could be the best thing you do all summer. 

Pictures: If we won the lottery, here's where we'd travel

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