Are you reading this article when you “should” be working? Good. That means you’re already well on your way to mastering the art of slow living.
Slow living isn’t just about taking more naps or promising not to check your email during your lunch break (but for the record, you should absolutely do both). No, a true slow-living philosophy is about valuing the little moments that often go unnoticed in the bustle of the day—the moments that make us human. It’s giving yourself permission to be wholly unproductive: to read, forest bathe, daydream, and “fill the creative well,” as author Julia Cameron might say.
The art of slow living is something that’s often misunderstood, especially in a society so focused on only seeing the value of people in terms of what they can produce. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a stay-at-home parent, we’re all hermetically-sealed to our work to the point where it’s hard to imagine life without it. Even the most open-minded among us can experience pangs of guilt when we feel we’re being unproductive.
So, for these next few minutes, pump the brakes and consider what the art of slow living could do for your life. I’ll discuss why we should all spend less time thinking about that next looming deadline or chore, and more time settling in with a good book.
The art of slow living is simple: it means slowing down to appreciate the things you have, and spending time on your own terms, free from guilt. However, this simplicity is actually what makes this concept so difficult for many people to embrace. If it were that easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?
To start with, many modern capitalist societies are structured in a way that contradicts a slow living philosophy. People tend to think of time in productive terms without realizing it. Why is it a virtue for you to brag about working overtime last weekend, but you’ll get pushback if you brag about the amazing nap you took this afternoon?
It’s not just the social pressure either. Many people stack responsibilities on themselves like a precarious juggling act:
You ate breakfast in your car this morning because you had to be at work by a certain time.
You were running late for work because you only managed to squeeze in five hours of sleep the night before.
You only got five hours of sleep because your toddler had a stomach bug and you spent most of the night huddled with them over the toilet.
It’s hard to balance all of your physical and emotional needs (not to mention your loved one’s) when so many other responsibilities gobble up each hour of the day.
Slow living doesn’t necessarily make these responsibilities disappear. Instead, it invites us to reframe the way we think about our time and our value as human beings. In practical terms, it means emailing your boss to tell her you’ll be late for work to get rest after caring for your child all night. Even if you can’t make this sort of change in your schedule, slow living could also be as simple as taking five minutes out of your day to enjoy your breakfast, to do nothing else but close your eyes and think about how incredible the eggs taste.
You don’t have to give up all of your responsibilities to embrace the art of slow living. You only have to create a mental space where you focus on one thing at a time. Thinking about it in broader terms, it’s also about understanding that your value is not tied to your ability to produce—to produce work, children, money, home-cooked meals, or a shoulder to cry on. You have the right to live your life in a way that feeds your mind, body, and soul. This doesn’t make you lazy or selfish; this makes you human.
Reading is one of the best ways to embrace the art of slow living. As author Zadie Smith says in her collection of essays, Feel Free, “Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
Books and stories are, by their very nature, untethered from the capitalist compulsion of productivity and transaction. A fantasy novel can transport you to a magical new world for a few hours, a world where your responsibilities cease to exist. A heartfelt memoir lets you slip into another person’s mind, seeing the world through their eyes. Every reader needs that moment when time seems to freeze, the real world melts away, and they’re free to simply exist in the space the writer has created for them.
On a deeper level, stories are perhaps the most human thing we can share. Our ancient ancestors would gather by the fire to tell tales, everything from the mundane (the enormous fish someone caught that morning) to the divine (which mythical being is responsible for the rain). Stories have always been key to humanity’s survival. We are among the only creatures on this planet that can share stories, and what’s more, we can share these ideas using the written word, spanning cultures and even languages with only a handful of symbols on the page.
But despite stories being a crucial aspect of what makes us human, few of us make time and space to share them anymore. Even those of us who read every day can easily fall into the trap of productivity. You might set a goal to read a certain number of pages, or a certain number of books. Perhaps you feel guilty when life gets in the way and you stop reading for a few weeks. Or, you only read the books that offer you something tangible: information, productivity tips, rules for life.
The art of slow living invites you to set these ideas aside and read for its own sake, to immerse yourself in a story. And, taking it further, it asks you to share those stories with the people around you. Next time you’re chatting with friends over coffee, step back from the usual banter for a while and talk about stories, ideas, or daydreams. Normalize discussions that have nothing to do with productivity.
The art of slow living is a tough one to master, even if you logically know that being productive every moment of the day is unsustainable. People in capitalist societies are taught to value productivity and work ethic above all else, even at the expense of their mental health. As a child, you were probably asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, not who you wanted to be, or how you wanted to live. This unhealthy pattern of thinking has an especially strong impact on women and people who were assigned female at birth, as patriarchal societies also place an undue burden on them, forcing them into the role of caregivers. They are often taught to ignore their own feelings to make others more comfortable.
The Solution: Read More!
A slow living lifestyle helps people break away from these patterns by asking them to place a higher value on how they’re feeling in the moment. Reading about slow living is a great way to silence that inner critic and see the value in your own emotions. You should read more than just slow-living, self-help books, though.
Here are a few essential reads (both fiction and non-fiction) that epitomize or better explain the slow living philosophy:
Critics of slow living will also point out that not everyone has the same opportunity to take naps when they want, or find flexible careers. They might argue that when you’re worried about how you’re going to put food on the table tonight, slow living is low on the priority list.
The Solution: Mutual Aid
Working together to dismantle the social pressures and systems that oppress others is key. This means encouraging broader workers’ rights and bucking society’s expectations. In the meantime, the art of slow living isn’t unattainable, even for those who live paycheck to paycheck. This philosophy is about an inner shift in perspective. It’s about believing that all human beings have value, and productivity has nothing to do with it. Libraries are also an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about the art of slow living but have limited money and resources. And, if you don’t feel like lugging around a 400-page fantasy tome, you can also download free ebooks from your local library to your phone or computer using apps like Libby.
To truly embrace the art of slow living in our society, we have to support each other. It starts with taking some time to appreciate the little luxuries of the day, like a hot cup of coffee or the sound of a bird outside the window. It deepens with reading each other’s stories and sharing our own.
When we slow down and appreciate the role that stories have in our lives, we can see how they’ll shape our future. Stories drive human connection and meaningful change, so share the gift of a story with someone today.
Which books or short stories do you feel speak to the art of slow living? Share your favorites below.