Do Less. It’s Good for You.

Scientifically speaking, “relaxation” just means activating your parasympathetic nervous system—the one that handles bodily processes you don’t think about, like breathing and digestion—instead of your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your stress response.

Jamie Ducharmie in Time Magazine: You take a vacation day, but get distracted by the thought of your work inbox filling up. Or you sit down to watch a movie and immediately feel guilty about all the tasks still on your to-do list. Or perhaps you splurge on a massage, but barely enjoy it because your thoughts are racing the entire time. If any of these sound familiar, you’re not alone. Relaxing may sound like the easiest thing in the world, but for many people it’s anything but.

Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, learned that a decade ago, when she helped design a study to test the effects of letting people do nothing but sit with their thoughts for a few minutes. “We had this idea that if we gave people a few moments in their busy days to just sit and slow down and be alone with their thoughts, that they’d find it really enjoyable and it would be relaxing and increase well-being,” Westgate says. The opposite happened: people were so uncomfortable doing nothing that many opted to give themselves small electric shocks instead.

Doing nothing, as Westgate’s study illustrated, can be difficult because most of us aren’t used to thinking without turning those thoughts into actions—a disconnect that can be “incredibly cognitively intense,” she says.

Researchers including Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, have also studied the concepts of “relaxation anxiety” and “relaxation sensitivity,” which relate to the discomfort, boredom, or unease some people feel when they slow down. For some, “There’s this view that, ‘I should always be busy doing something,’” Newman says. “Often people feel like it’s not okay to just be reading a good book or watching a good program on TV.”

No wonder. Productivity and hard work are nothing if not the American Way, with mainstream institutions from government to church urging people to stay busy, says Celeste Headlee, author of the book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. “Our society has valued really, really toxic things,” she says. “We have for generations been brainwashed” to believe that productivity is morally superior to rest—so it’s no wonder relaxing sometimes feels uncomfortable or even wrong, Headlee says. Research shows that people are, to varying degrees, motivated by what they feel they “should” be doing; some may feel guilty when they deviate from that.

Rebecca Schaumberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has studied the positive side of work-related guilt, finding that people who are guilt-prone tend to be more productive and reliable workers. But in recent years, she says, she has come to question whether guilt is good for people, or just the organizations that employ them. “Guilt can be good in the workplace, but it doesn’t always mean it’s good for the person who feels it,” she says—especially if it prevents them from ever taking time to step away and decompress.

More here.