Relax, It's OK to Enjoy Life, Especially Now

Allowing time for things you enjoy is essential to well-being.

Posted Aug 27, 2020

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

I’m reading more during the pandemic. Not just the few minutes at bedtime when tired eyes make the words hard to follow, but also after work, before dinner. Saturday mornings before the others are up.

I’m also spending more time outside. And cooking. Playing the ukulele. And having deeper, more interesting conversations with my husband. I spend more time loving the cat. Playing cards with my kid. And all this just feels good.

Yes, even with the stress, disappointments, and concerns over COVID-19, diminishing returns on my work, and the health of my aging parents, I feel happy.

I didn't know what it was before. This kind of happiness feels misplaced during a time of so much change and upheaval. I noticed only that I was less reactive. I was feeling calmer, more grounded.

Perhaps, I thought, it’s because I’ve had a little more time to relax. I'm not commuting to work appearances or meetings, no back-to-school nights, or gym workouts. I'm not frantically cooking dinner in the minutes after work before my husband needs to leave for his running club. There is no longer a running club. Mostly, we stay home now. 

Life pre-COVID was full and interesting, for sure. I miss hugs with my parents and long dinners with friends. I miss hearing my daughter’s stories about school and watching her play soccer.

But the forced withdrawal has given me some space in my schedule, and I'm filling it with things I enjoy. Things that, in the past, would have felt lazy or unnecessary.

Those so-called lazy activities now feel as important and meaningful as the goal-directed, focused tasks I spent most of my days doing. 

A new study from the University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands led by motivational psychologist Katharina Bernecker found that our capacity to enjoy simple pleasures—things that cultivate hedonistic happiness without the distraction—is essential to our happiness and well-being.

Pursuing meaningful goals, creating habits that support our values and desires—such as eating healthier foods to achieve weight-loss—and cultivating the self-control needed to accomplish our objectives make for a happier and more satisfying life too.

But Bernecker’s research indicates a balance is essential. That's something I've rarely had. I've been dogged in pursuit of long-term goals, often forgoing my immediate desires to relax, or indulge in a treat, or sleep in on a Saturday, in favor of pressing on with the work or exercise.

I don't do that anymore. Now, instead of shuttling kids to soccer or school, I'm using that time to create space in my schedule to relax and enjoy. I'm visiting with my daughter, listening to podcasts, reading on the back deck. And I've become more mindful of the good things in life, wedged between the challenges.

This time spent to do more of what I enjoy has led to other unexpected shifts too. Rather than feeling so burned out at work, I feel more relaxed and motivated. I have greater clarity and responsiveness. I'm no longer as impatient, reactive, frantic. 

A Balance of Both

In the study, Bernecker says, “the pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t conflict with one another. Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health.”

We must, though, keep the intrusive thoughts, the ones that distract us from experiencing pleasure and savoring the moment, from crowding out our good feelings.

This isn’t easy, but it's worthwhile. Downtime isn't a luxury. It isn't laziness. Reframe it as a way to stay healthy, happy. An approach to help us avoid burnout and manage stress.

And when we feel good and less stressed, our health and well-being improve. Our immune systems function better. When our stress is managed, we are less susceptible to flu and cold viruses, headaches, and chronic conditions.

I felt the changes in my body before I knew why. Now that time spent doing something simply because I enjoy it helps me be healthier, happier, more successful at everything else.  

I still hear that inner critic, though. You know, the one who calls us “lazy” when we take a break, or the raspy-voiced inner coach who tells us to “get up and work harder.” Now that I recognize it, I can diffuse the urgency by acknowledging that it's OK. I will get back on task, finish the job or the chore. The toilets will get cleaned; the post will get written. Right after I enjoy this one precious moment. 

Now it's your turn. Set aside some time to do something fun. Something that brings you pleasure. Protect time on a Saturday afternoon to do whatever you like. Or use the mini-breaks throughout your day to relax, read a few pages in a book, savor a good lunch, or mindfully listen to music by your favorite band during breaks at work. 

Life is plenty hard, but by building in the things that help us relax and feel good, we can better manage it all. It’s OK to feel good—and in the end, we’ll be healthier for it.

The best way to honor our life is to enjoy it.