It’s exhausting, trying to make it in the middle class. Like a lot of people, I work outside my full-time job in the gig economy. This means that, in addition to being a college professor, I do small, one-off jobs for money such as writing articles and providing professional development to teachers.
The appeal of the gig economy is its flexibility: you can work anytime, anywhere. But for me, this often means that I fall into the trap of working all the time, everywhere. And that makes me really, really tired.
I’m certainly not alone. According to a 2013 study by the National Sleep Association, conducted with 1,500 people across six countries, the majority of people (56% in the US, 56% in Japan, and 66% in Germany) aren’t getting enough sleep. And in an even larger 2015 study of 18,000 people across 183 countries, 68% of people said that they yearn to get more rest. Rest, to be clear, is not just about sleep. It encompasses any time spent disengaged from work, whether you’re connecting with family and friends or sitting outside with a mug of tea and enjoying the silence.
Rest has incredible benefits. It refreshes your mental reserves, allowing you to perform deeper, more meaningful work. It provides your brain the chance to consider problems unconsciously, often leading to better solutions. It paves the way for greater creativity and innovation.
Yet despite these incredibly well-established benefits, people have been complaining about exhaustion since the days of the ancient Romans. And there’s reason to believe that this affliction is particularly acute in today’s hyper-connected world. After all, modern society has upended two long-standing traditions that traditionally encouraged rest.
Keeping the Sabbath
In both the US and in Europe, people are steadily becoming less religious. One outcome of this trend is that fewer people are going to church on Sundays and Shabbat on Fridays. While in the 1950s, a solid majority of Americans went to church every week (aided in part by “blue laws” which prohibited businesses from keeping Sunday hours), these days, it is estimated that only 20% of people attend church every weekend.
As a result, Western culture is moving away from a day traditionally demarcated for rest and rejuvenation. As the influential Jewish scholar Rabbi Heschel says, “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to the holiness of time.” Without the ritual of attending church or temple, many of us have found that work emails and delayed projects quickly crowd their way into our Sundays. Now we toil away on the seventh day, just as we do on the other six.
To be clear, secularism is not a problem unto itself. Affiliation with a particular religion is not the only path to finding higher meaning. Rather, the decline in attendance at church services has rendered a structural blow to our ability to rest—and it’s not the only one.
Allowing darkness to slow us down
Before the advent of artificial light, when the sun went down, people had no choice but to stop working. Though candles and fireplaces allowed people to gather and converse, write letters, read, or play games, tasks that required greater focus and clarity were left for the next day. Most people were in bed by 9 pm. While there, they slept, talked, and touched. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Clark Strand writes,
“Darkness was the only power that has ever put the human agenda on hold.”
Or, you could say, darkness elevated a different agenda. In , a book chronicling the history of the night, Roger Ekirch explains that the longer duration of time allotted to rest allowed for naturally interrupted sleep. People would sleep for a few hours; wake up for a spell; and then sleep again.
These days, by contrast, our daytime agenda never gets turned off. Seventy-one percent of us sleep with our smartphones, checking them immediately upon waking and in the middle of the night, should the opportunity arise. In addition to causing insomnia by shifting our circadian rhythms, this incessant smartphone use in bed is credited with relationship trouble and less sex. I don’t know about you, but if giving into darkness means more luxurious sleep and better lovemaking, that’s a trade I’m willing to make.
Making room for rest
The extinction of darkness, along with the decline of Sabbath, represent structural losses to our ability to rest, rejuvenate, and return to our work refreshed. Humans have struggled to disengage from stress and work for millennia. But it is relatively recent that we’ve turned our back on the daily, weekly and yearly safeguards that ensured we got at least a little rest.
This leaves us with a conundrum. The march of progress has eliminated most of our structural supports for rest, and we are all exhausted as a result. What can we do to restore the balance we need to function?
One answer is to create our own structures. Even if we’re not religious, there’s no reason we can’t instate a day of the weekend to be free of toil and technology. You could decide to make Sundays smartphone-free days, for example. Download the Freedom App and set up a recurring weekly session that will block social media, news, email and messaging, if you (like me) need some help. Use this found time to get outside and connect with your loved ones. As the noted Methodist and Unitarian Universalist scholar Rebecca Parker notes, “To keep the Sabbath is a radical act of resistance to a culture that has lost track of the meaning of life.”
We can also commit deeply to an evening routine of intentional unwinding, followed by sleep in a room scrubbed of light. According to the international study described above, people find activities that they do alone to be the most calming before bed: reading, taking a solitary walk around the block, and listening to music were among those chosen as most restful.
I have tried both of these approaches lately, and it has been amazing how much better I feel.
For people around the world, it’s become increasingly clear that we need to take strong, forceful action to create change in our lives and in the way we work. In the US, wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation and the middle class is eroding away. And as a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center notes, the middle class hasn’t materialized as hoped in the global economy.
It is precisely because of these complicated and difficult times that we need to take care of ourselves. Exhausted, distracted, burnt-out people aren’t terribly effective at creating change. Our success depends on our ability to creatively problem-solve—and to do that, we all need to get some rest.
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