A West Island psychologist says that mastering the art of doing nothing—in fact, loafing—is essential for our mental health. Here’s why it’s important.
Does your to-do list look like this?
Drop off children at arena: check.
Groceries, dry cleaning: check.
Meeting with boss: check.
Year-end report: check
Call plumber: check.
Do nothing for an hour or so: What? Seriously?
Taking time to chill out is one item that gets pushed to the bottom of most people’s to-do lists if it’s there at all. But according to Dr. Kelly-Ann Cartwright, a psychologist with the West Island Neuropsychology and Counseling Centre, making time to loaf is an essential way to maintain mental health.
“When we talk about loafing, I understand it as a form of leisure,” Dr. Cartwright says. “There’s active leisure and passive leisure. When you’re active, you’re physically and mentally moving and engaged. Loafing can also be passive: listening to music, sitting among trees, lying in the grass and looking at the sky.”
Enjoying leisure time is one of the four critical pillars of mental health, along with sleep, diet and movement (exercise), she says. The catch? We live in a culture that values and glorifies striving and accomplishment. “While our culture also values just being, the rewards go to the doing,” Dr. Cartwright says. “We tend to be judged by our accomplishments and performance.”
Loafing is as important to the mental wellbeing of children as it is to adults, she says, adding that parents who fill their children’s time with activities can unwittingly contribute to anxiety in later life. “Children know inherently how to loaf,” she says. “They don’t need constant stimulation. We can allow our children to learn the skill of creating their own interests and motivations. When children are bored, they find things to do, such as looking at ants or discovering that they like drawing.”
Loafing has a restorative function, Dr. Cartwright says. “True loafing involves being in touch with your own solitude in a positive and enriching way.” That’s why loafers often get sudden creative insights that elude them during times of busyness.
By contrast, goal-striving directs thought. “Sometimes, the answers we’re looking for lie outside of where we’re directing our thoughts. Loafing allows us to stop directing thought. It’s important for success in life because it allows for creativity and the consolidation of learning.”
At its most basic, loafing is the art of tuning into the present moment without thinking of the past or projecting into the future.
We can get off the hamster wheel even for a short while. For people who are constantly engaged in goal-directed activity, Dr. Cartwright has some advice: Start small by tuning into your “sensory modality.” Visual people, for instance, can loaf by looking at sunsets or fireworks. Auditory folks can sit in their backyards, listening to birds. Tactile people can bundle up in a blanket or soft sweater to read a book.
“Write yourself a permission slip,” Dr. Cartwright says. “Some of us need to give ourselves permission to loaf. You have the right to just be. You don’t have to accomplish anything. Loafing involves the absence of anxiety. The happiest people I know are those who create little pockets of pleasure doing nothing, sprinkled throughout their lives like glitter.”