Is Relaxing Overrated?

The media, physicians, and respected authorities on health and wellness wag their well-meaning fingers telling us to take it easy. They inform us that we need to relax more in order to save ourselves from burnout. It is the difference, they claim, between being driven and driven to death. But is it?

Relaxing may be overrated. Research consistently shows there is a link between longevity and staying busy. Dan Buettner studies people who live well into their 100s. In addition to leading active lives and having strong community ties, meaningful work is a common theme that emerges in those who live into their triple digits. For these centenarians, retirement isn’t an option.

Howard Friedman, PhD, author of The Longevity Project, an examination of a study that has followed over 1500 Americans since the 1920s, writes:

Individuals who stayed busiest stayed healthiest.  Often, those who were fully involved in their work (and worked the hardest) lived the longest.  It was not those who took a lackadaisical approach to life who thrived. On the contrary, those who persisted in their education, in their careers, and their marriages and community groups were the ones who stayed healthy and lived long.

Mastery and achievement all require a certain degree of hard work and yes, stress. As Hans Selye, who laid the foundation for stress science in the 1930s believed, stress is in fact the “salt of life,” and goes hand-in-hand with achievement and perseverance. Perhaps the key to avoiding burnout isn’t relaxing more, it is keeping things in perspective, having a connected existence and finding meaning in our lives and in what we do.

It’s how you manage hard work and the stress that accompanies it that matters. Certainly finding ways to unwind and relax is important—all I am saying is that relaxing as an end goal is overrated. Self-reflection, connecting with one’s self and loved ones, doing something that’s meaningful to others and not just ourselves matters most.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal showed an interesting graph highlighting the fact that US presidents, on average, live longer than other men of their time “despite the stress of the job.” I would argue that perhaps it is because of the stress of their job.

Given the choice of a relaxing life or a meaningful one, choose a meaningful one.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman