Late last year I heard the term ambient TV, a new phrase describing something so familiar I didn’t need an explanation. The expression was coined by Kyle Chayka in The New Yorker, writing about the 2020 series Emily in Paris which Chayka suggests is not designed to actually “watch” in the old-fashioned sense of engaging with characters while paying attention to plot, but instead “to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds” as ‘Emily’ refreshes hers – onscreen.
The internet is full of memes about scrolling on your phone while you ignore Netflix with a snack and glass of wine at hand. If this image sparks a little burst of guilty recogntition, you’re not alone. The guaranteed mini-endorphin rushes of social media have been well documented, as have the dopamine producing effects of snacking, and the ‘anxiolytic’ (or anxiety decreasing) first effects of alcohol*. When you pile all three onto the couch with you, with a bingeable series purposely made to half ignore, you’ll be lucky to escape without a major effort of will.
For many of us, the ‘couch, wine, snacks, Netflix, phone’ phenomenon is a familiar relief after long and stressful days feeling overloaded with responsibilities and demands on our time. For even more of us, there’s a pressing feeling that we’re not free to relax even when we’re officially ‘off the clock’ as media of all kinds bombards us with ‘should’s’. We should be working on our beach bodies, ‘fixing’ our nails, face, hair… or… personality (?), upgrading contracts, renovating so our homes spark joy, polishing our ‘digital’ brands, or simply spending time getting ahead of our peers in some nebulous, never-finished way. It’s no wonder we feel the pull of the couch. ‘Bingeing’ a show has become a protest at the extreme demands of everyday life, like a defiantly slothful version of the 1960s invitation to drop out.
Overcommitted and burned out is also exactly how a person might expect to feel if they weren’t getting their needs met – and so often we aren’t. There are genuine and important issues that sap our vitality: Disability in an ableist world, illness, unequal wages, eroding job security, unfairly distributed domestic tasks or emotional labour, social prejudices- just to name a few. But an ironic contributor to most people’s sense of not ever having enough, or ever feeling refreshed, might be a direct result of this rebellious celebration of the ‘ambient’ relaxation style of simply giving in to the dopamine, couch, Netflix-and-phone spiral.
So how can I drop back in? I’m too tired!!
In the realm of sports there’s an idea called active rest. If you’re training for a marathon, active rest might mean that on your days ‘off’ you choose not to simply stay still, but instead do a less intense, slower and easier activity to keep your muscles limber and warm, and enjoy the benefits of all that hard training.
The idea is that by staying active in a gentler, more expansive way, you’re giving your body a chance to recharge and heal by using alternate or restorative kinds of movement rather than just completely crashing out. Mental health professionals often use the term active rest too. In mental health, active rest is a way of refilling the tank of our inner lives, replenishing our resources and connection to people, places and things we value so that we can feel more supported and whole in our everyday activities. Active rest in mental health terms is basically anything enjoyable, relaxing and engaging that makes you feel restored and happy. Here’s an example: If visiting your grandma makes you feel virtuous but exhausted it’s not active rest, but if visiting with Gran makes you feel delighted and energetic even after a long day together, then you’re officially actively resting. For me active rest might take the form of a bushwalk on a rainy day, or spending an afternoon at the aquarium (there’s something so magnificently peaceful about watching sea creatures from an underwater perspective).
For you it might be:
- Reading a crime novel,
- Doing a yin yoga class,
- Talking with your bestie,
- Walking the dog,
- Repotting house plants,
- Alphabetising your bookcase,
- Dancing in the kitchen,
- Or hitting up a farmers market or some op shops on an all-afternoon ramble.
Okay, I’m convinced…. But I don’t have time!
Yes. You do. If you spend twenty minutes scrolling facebook, Instagram and tumbler when you walk in the door, swap it out ONE night this week for lying on the floor with a warm blanket over you, listening to a guided meditation or even a short story. If you binge watch TV shows give yourself 45 minutes (the length of a single-episode) after work for a foot massage at that massage place you stare at every morning as you wait for the tram. If you head straight from a long Sunday lie-in to the pub for lunch at 1pm, leave half an hour earlier and sit in the sun in a park on the way and read a chapter of your book or just stare at the birds and flowers without looking at your phone. You get the picture.
The key to nailing active rest is to set yourself up for success: Don’t wait for willpower to drag you up off your bum, but book something in and make deliberate space in your schedule:
- Enlist a relaxing friend to go for a Sunday bushwalk, or make a date to vintage shop,
- Book a massage on a Friday evening after work,
- Make a ‘restorative yoga’ booking on a Saturday morning,
- Head to your local pool on a Sunday morning and enjoy the sauna and spa for a while, or
- Check out the afternoon bargains at the markets.
Finally, to make active rest work for you, pick an activity you really, really love to do. Pleasure is perhaps the greatest motivator of all time, and we want to hack your rest day so it’s as frictionless as possible. Pick something that makes you excited and happy and enlist help if you need to. Set a date and put your equipment front and centre to get you excited as the week rolls by.
I can’t guarantee much in life, but I would happily place a bet that you will very rarely regret swapping more time in a screen-wormhole for a ramble in eucalyptus scented bush, or a row down the Yarra in a little hired boat, or an afternoon in a café watching the rain and reading the latest crime thriller… or baking an elaborate four-storey cake for no reason… or heading out for a massage…
The only questions are: What makes you feel relaxed and alive… and when are you going to do it?
- Alcohol is actually a super effective way to relieve anxiety – for a while. The lovely feeling of ease that comes after that first glass can be hard to pass up, but it’s useful to keep in mind that alcohol is a nervous system depressant – and will lead to depressed mood and heightened anxiety in the longer run. If you’re having trouble feeling rested, have broken sleep, get the 3am horrors, typically have depressed mood in the mornings, or experience a lot of anxiety, try giving booze a miss for a few evenings and see how you feel.