More wholesome relaxation?
July 25, 2022 6:06 AM   Subscribe

How do you relax at home after a long day without the involvement of screens and cheap dopamine?

When I'm low on energy I tend to gravitate towards senseless entertainment, which leaves me feeling more drained rather than rested. The more tired I am, the worse my impulse control is, so any activity with a screen might lead me to the Dark Playground. I've discovered that the only thing that feels relaxing, wholesome and healthy is having a long bath. I'd like to discover more things I can do to recharge that are not exploitative and bad for me.

Reading seems like an obvious answer, but when I'm tired I have trouble concentrating on anything but pulp, and pulp is tricky territory because I might end up in yet another cheap dopamine trap. Podcasts don't work for me because it involves a screen and because I don't feel stimulated enough if I don't do anything with my eyes or my body. Playing musical pieces I already know is the right amount of stimulation, but I run out of material way too soon. Learning a new piece takes too much energy.

Surely there are things that are low demand, somewhat stimulating and not evil. Tell me how you've managed to become a more healthy coach potato!
posted by luminary to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (41 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure where you are located, but if it is summer where you are, consider walks or spending time outside. I do a lot of sitting on my porch without my phone staring at the sky or watching birds.
posted by terrapin at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2022 [20 favorites]

I think answers will vary depending on what you have available to you in terms of other people, pets, what you like, etc. However, sometimes since I spend all day at a screen, I cannot stand watching TV to wind down (whereas my partner does not have that kind of job, and enjoys TV winding down). When I'm feeling that way, especially on these longer nights, we'll do some or all of the following:

- Play a Game. There are tons of nice little two player games that we enjoy playing a few rounds of: Off Topic, Here to Slay, Twosome, Crated with Love games/boxes, and Sushi Go! are some faves.

- Similarly games you play on paper, but by yourself: Sodoku, crosswords, etc. There are whole entire books of these things that people enjoy.

- Walk the dog. Here at about 8pm it's still light but the sun has stopped being insane, so we will take the dog for a longer walk than usual around that time, and we're home by about the time it gets dark. It's important obviously to walk by yourself or with your dog somewhere safe at these times, since the light is tricky, but you could listen to a podcast or music while you do this (just don't look at the phone after you turn it on of course). You also don't need a dog, you can just go for a walk.

- I don't know why it's a problem to read pulp / trash if that is what your brain can do? I do not understand your objection here, it's fine to read trash. I read so much trash. It's fun. Who cares. Reading doesn't have to be for "betterment" and anyway, some reading is better for you brain-wise than not reading at all.

- Pick a vinyl record at random, listen to it and talk about the music (or, talk about anything really).
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2022 [12 favorites]

Jigsaw puzzles



Setting up dioramas

Knitting, crocheting, naalbinding or embroidery

Sorting books, or your spice cabinet, or your pantry or your tool cabinet or your sewing things or your medicine cabinet or your under the sink collection of cleaning fluids, scouring powder and light bulbs

Grooming the dog or the cat

Logic puzzles

Dot to dot books

Making a mosaic or similar art that has a simple pattern to follow

Making lists of things such as the supplies necessary for 200 colonists transported into the Jurassic period.

Cleaning fans. Polishing the silver. Any sort of detailed cleaning that can be done while sitting down and leaning over the object you are working on.


Bead work
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:26 AM on July 25, 2022 [12 favorites]

I question the way you're framing easy entertainment as a "cheap dopamine trap" and "evil." If you've noticed that these do not make you feel better, that's one thing, but I think framing these "non-productive" or "lowly" forms of entertainment this way is a calvinist trap that puts pressure on us to "better ourselves" or live up to some sort of self-narrative even during our leisure time.

That aside, my suggestion would be to combine listening to something (like podcasts or music) with a hobby like crotchet or cross-stitch. Basically, any hobby where you're actively using your hands, but you're not required to be actively creative most of the time (since that takes mental energy). There are lot of hobbies like this.

Also, if you're in an area where you can take leisurely walks? I would consider that.

If your job is not physically taxing, and you are capable, I would also consider exercise like riding a bike. I hate to be the person who says that exercise often makes you feel more energized, but ... ... ... it often does. It's worth considering.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:32 AM on July 25, 2022 [36 favorites]

Drawing maps

Playing a music instrument

Painting or doodling

Baking or cooking to save time later in the week and have nicer food

Gardening or tending house plants

Using flash cards

Playing card games

Listening to podcasts

Drawing Celtic knotwork
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:32 AM on July 25, 2022 [7 favorites]

Currently, handsewing and embroidering small bags while listening to mystery books or science podcasts. I did crosswords for a while but got too competitive. Anything that can be scored in some way is not relaxing.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:34 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

Yoga, Tai Chi, kata or a gentle stretching routine
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:35 AM on July 25, 2022 [7 favorites]

I use screens and cheap dopamine hits, but I also use other things. I'm a jigsaw puzzle addict and tend to cycle between podcasts and eaudiobooks while doing them; music also works. Eaudiobooks I think generally involve less screen time than podcasts, since you don't have to skip ads, shuffle between series/ episodes. Plus you can get them free from your library!

I'm not currently doing much of them but other things that also work: colouring, especially postcards that you can send to people or save for birthday/occasion cards; mending; origami, especially modular origami; cross-stitch. These can also be combined with listening to things.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:41 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Read magazines instead of books. Magazine articles are easy to read in one sitting and often timely, which is to say that they're usually stimulating without being particularly memorable. Even articles in pretentious magazines like the New Yorker are forgotten as soon as you read them. And there's a magazine for almost literally everything. Bonus: if you buy them at the grocery store, they're usually right next to the crossword and sudoku books, so you can pick up one of those too.

It sounds like you're already playing a musical instrument, so instead of playing pieces you know, try writing new pieces and/or improvising. Like, if you play piano, just play a simple chord progression in your left hand and improvise a melody with your right. Or just play chords - especially if you play guitar. I've spent a lot of time just playing a G-C-D chord progression so many times that it becomes trance-like.

My wife does puzzles, and you can see how much better she feels. I find them a little frustrating, but it's worth a shot.

Photography is a fun hobby that you can do with your phone and takes as much mental energy as you want to put into it.

If you have access to a pool, some leisurely lap swimming might scratch the same itch that taking a bath does. Otherwise, yeah, a nice walk would probably be helpful.

What about a screen that you don't control? By which I mean, going to a movie theater? Obviously this could get expensive so you wouldn't do it every day, but it could be a nice way to mix things up.

That last part is probably kind of important. I think just picking one activity is probably going to lead to eventual burnout and disillusion with that activity, putting you right back in the place you are now. One of the problems with omnipresent phones is that they've really flattened out life. Before smartphones, we had a variety of hobbies and activities, but then smartphones smushed all that into one activity, which was looking at the phone. Now we're only thinking in terms of one activity. I think it'd be better to think in terms of as many activities as you can handle. Buy some magazines and a crossword book and a puzzle, and go for a walk, and go to a movie theater, and take some photos. I think that diversity of activity will recharge you as much as the activities themselves.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:43 AM on July 25, 2022 [24 favorites]

Progressive relaxation, self massage and self hypnosis and getting to really learn to listen to the signals from your body

Looking at picture books such as coffee table books of castles or elephants, or reading manga/BD that you can mainly look at the pictures and not fully read the speech bubbles without missing much

Work your way through earning all the cub scout or brownie badges or some similar list of simple progressive goals.

Invent your own language and create a dictionary and grammar for it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:43 AM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

If you have a moderate amount of space build a wildlife pond - it is interesting to make, will attract lots of wildlife to your garden and can absorb hours of your observation time once completed. If you have less space then you could make a pond from something like a wine barrel.
posted by rongorongo at 6:45 AM on July 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't have a conceptual problem with "lowly" entertainment, but if it is very entertaining, I'll get sucked into it and not be able to get to bed on time. That's why reading pulp or interacting with a screen leaves me feeling more exhausted rather than refreshed. I wish I could wind down with a low-brow TV show or book and then just stop when bedtime comes. Paradoxically, when low on energy, I can't control my impulse to just keep going. A bath, on the other hand, has a natural end.

I appreciate you pointing out the calvinist trap of needing to be productive all the time. I accept that I need downtime that isn't productive in any way, which is why I am looking for ideas to veg out in ways that don't actively harm me, instead of new, productive hobbies.

Thanks a lot for the suggestions so far, keep them coming! Some, like reading paper magazines or grooming a pet, is just what I was looking for.
posted by luminary at 6:46 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

Working with clay or Plasticine

Making dolls out of yarn

Get a bird/flower/tree indentification book and identify anything you can in your back yard.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:47 AM on July 25, 2022 [6 favorites]

Short yoga routines can be really nice. Yoga with Adriene built an empire on free yoga videos on YouTube which, IMO, are quite good. There are many pay options, but she's a good one to start with.
posted by redondo77 at 6:53 AM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

I'm finding puttering around the house surprisingly restorative. Like, not Doing Chores, but strolling around, and bringing a dirty mug to the dishwasher, and watching my neighbors out the window, and replying to a text, and going around again to shut the blinds, and making some herbal tea, and sitting on the porch with it until I get bored, and then...

The payoff isn't the quick pop of satisfaction that I think people mean when they say "dopamine." It's more... soothing. But soothing turns out to be nice in the evening.

It also involves deliberately deciding to be a little bored, and to just kind of live with that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:55 AM on July 25, 2022 [24 favorites]

I love listening to a whole album - or, better yet, a live concert with all the little bits of intro/outro talking in between - while doing something with my hands, like cooking or knitting or drawing.

For music, can you find the level of stumbly sight-reading that will keep you interested enough in playing new-ish things without using your brain too much? This could be getting a list of four-chord songs and just playing the four chords you know in different arrangements. I find that if I can get myself to do this without pushing to be better or perfect it's the right amount of stimulation. No going back to fix things or anything that feels like practicing, just pushing forward.
posted by earth by april at 6:55 AM on July 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

I find that reading long narrative comics or graphic novels in book format engaging enough that my brain considers it entertainment, but not as taxing as reading prose fiction or non-fiction when I'm tired. Comics with chapter breaks are even better, as it's easier to find a natural point to bookmark and come back to later rather than getting sucked into reading the whole thing. This is something I've been trying to do more of lately rather than playing video games in the evening.

While there are many excellent web comics, I find this works best when I read printed books, as it's easy to drift into endless scroll mode with web comics.
posted by terretu at 6:56 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

I like oil pastels to gently immerse myself in just being. Tell yourself that you are only going to do it for ten minutes. You can start by trying to represent a thing or scene around you, but if it doesn't work out, you can smear, etch, scrape to make it something else. I've used the 10-color packs and the forty-color collections and think I prefer the smaller selection because blending and shading to create what you want engages a different space in your head. I have access to scrap blond plywood that I cut into random page-size or smaller pieces. This, like the blending, both narrows your options and engages your creativity in reacting to what the shape calls for. But whether you're on wood or paper or some other surface, you might find yourself in a flow state.

One other thing - any stock heavier than a couple of sheets of paper and of a certain range of sizes can be used as a postcard. Get some stamps and send your worst efforts to your friends and enemies. You can spray with a fixative if you are considerate of your mailperson.
posted by bullatony at 7:00 AM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Poetry. Start at the Poetry Foundation, find someone you like, find a collection of their poems, get it from your library. Can't concentrate on a poem? Read it again. Read it line by line, word by word.
posted by Etrigan at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2022 [10 favorites]

This is such a great question!

I've started taking more evening walks this last year. For me this is an enjoyable activity that perfectly combines being easy to do and not being unhealthy. I often listen to music or a podcast while doing this.
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Go for a saunter. It’s not about speed or time or distance, it’s about relaxing and experiencing the world around you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:49 AM on July 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

My friend has a stock tank pool. Her "pool parties" are AMAZING. She invites one or two friends invited to come over and sit in the stock tank pool during the hottest part of the day and have a drink and some snacks. It can be hard to enjoy sunshine and being outside when it's hot and humid, but sitting in some cool water is pretty much the optimal use of a midwestern summer afternoon. You can't mess around on your phone. You can't be "productive." You can't actually swim, you just sit and shoot the breeze with a couple of friends.

I'm also a big believer in Petting Cats Meditation. It involves a cat on your lap who gets your total attention and focus.
posted by BrashTech at 8:23 AM on July 25, 2022 [7 favorites]

When I want to relax with no pressure I prefer activities that are pre-mapped and easy to start and stop. Needlework that adheres to a pattern I didn't write, coloring books with images I didn't have to draw, baking a treat I've made 100 times before with ingredients I already have, walking an easy and familiar route, that sort of thing. I also like to do low key and enjoyable maintenance activities for my hobbies, like misting and reconstituting a drying gouache palette, swatching that new set of watercolors or colored pencils I got last week, rewinding leftover yarn bits, etc. I get a lot of peace from a sense of order, so working on a colorswatch book or filling a new palette with tubed watercolors is fun and satisfying for me without requiring too much mental or physical effort.
posted by MagnificentVacuum at 8:35 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

I've been cooking slightly more involved things (like having a side dish AND a main) and I'm getting into it. It's a great time of year to make vinegary pickle-y vegetable sides, and chop up fruit. I started making granola every week and change up the ingredients. I often play music or podcasts while I cook and clean up. I've also been making an effort to clean a little bit in the evenings, just taking care of something that's been nagging at me.

I got into this by getting hooked on watching Japanese and Korean vloggers who do a lot of cooking and cleaning and morning/evening routine videos. They're extremely soothing, and not so engaging that they'll keep me up late, YMMV.
posted by momus_window at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

I feel like you might be a good candidate for solo rpgs, specifically journaling games. These are games where you create a story by imagining experiences (guided by prompts from a randomizing device, like dice or a deck of cards) and then writing about them. The flow of play is fairly episodic, so you can decide beforehand how many prompts you want to generate in a session to avoid getting sucked in. I find creative play like this to be mentally and emotionally restful and restorative.

I would especially recommend games that lend themselves well to quiet, meditative play, like Journey or Alone Among the Stars (which has a large number of hacks, if space exploration is not your thing). Since you want to avoid screens, I would recommend printing your chosen game - many of which are free - and making sure to choose a notebook and writing implement that you really like using.
posted by darchildre at 9:39 AM on July 25, 2022 [9 favorites]

Bake something unchallenging - I like a cookbook called Snacking Cakes for this

Give yourself a manicure/pedicure

Write a letter or card to someone and put it in the mail

+1 to the magazine article suggestion. Besides the New Yorker, I like The Sun magazine and science magazines for this.

Do a set of foam roller exercises to release tight hamstrings and hips
posted by lizard music at 9:47 AM on July 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Like, not Doing Chores, but strolling around, and bringing a dirty mug to the dishwasher

I do this too. Like, put on music (somewhere NOT on a screen, I have a bluetooth speaker for this) in a room and then just putter a bit. Maybe tidy. Maybe do a few dishes. Maybe water plants (plants are a great fiddly hobby though they don't take up too much time). Maybe file some papers. I feel like there are endless low-level house projects that need doing but don't need me to be ALL IN on them. A few other things I like

- Being in nature. Going for a walk either with or without podcasts and looking at things.
- Talking to a friend. Obviously this needs to be in person to not be a screens thing but like "Hey I am out and about and was going to swing by with some cookies" (or whatever) and then like 10 min or chat and then head out again.
- THE LIBRARY. Always good for a visit. Is it different for you if you read print books than if you read ebooks? I also have that "late night might not sleep" book problem and so I often 1. read print 2. read low-stakes mysteries that don't keep me up. Set a timer as to when I close the books. I also have one of those old-school Kindles for ebooks that have no other internet options on them.
- Writing postcards or letters. Keep up with friends of family. One thing I like about postcards is that they're small so you don't have to agonize over what to say and many people like getting real life mail. You can pick fun stamps. You can join the MeFi Card Club!
- Window feeders and bird watching
posted by jessamyn at 10:26 AM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Podcasts don't work for me because it involves a screen
I don't entirely get this, but I believe it. You could always download and queue them up on a screen-less dedicated audio player.

Long walks while listening to audio-books, and lately, lazily swimming/wading by the shore in large bodies of water have been good for me. Maybe that's not couch potato, but it's slowly rolling potato. Best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 11:08 AM on July 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

So, you like baths? I love baths.

Let me welcome you to the world of hammocks. Do you have a little outdoor space? Or a weirdly big room? Or a nearby park where you could lug a large bag relatively easily?

I have mentioned this here before but I have two of these Vivere 9-foot hammocks (Amazon but you don't have to Amazon). I had one, and it was so nice that I got a second one, you know, for company. You crawl in, you zone out. It's like a cocoon where you can sit quietly and think. Sometimes I'll read, sometimes I'll chat with a friend, but mostly I just sort of relax into the gravity of it and daydream for a long while. Especially great when there are stars or giant elm branches above you. Extra nice with a pillow and a blanket.
posted by mochapickle at 11:41 AM on July 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This sort of led me down a side thought that might be useful, which is that a lot of people (me included) are afraid of boredom because nowadays it happens when we've lost control of our life a little bit. Like, if you've got a pretty media-intensive life normally, then you get bored when you have a really shitty punitive job that makes you just sit there doing nothing when there's nothing to do. Or you get bored when the airline fucks up your connection, you don't get the time you were counting on to charge your phone, and you're stuck just staring out the window.

And so, IDK, part of the process of relaxing is unlearning those associations and finding ways to associate boredom with being safe, secure, in control, and at rest. Which for me means sometimes sitting and watching the clouds go by for a minute, until I'm a little bored, and then moving on. Over time it gets easier.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:24 PM on July 25, 2022 [13 favorites]

Seconding hammocks (whether outdoors or inside your home); recline for an hour and listen to new-to-you music from favorite artists.
Postcards to Voters
Kanopy streams The Great Courses, and you could work through a drawing, painting, cooking or language series in installments.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:45 PM on July 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Calligraphy, fancy or just tidying up your everyday hand until you like it.

For practice, write out anything you really like - poetry, Gettysburg Address, great movie speeches - you can slowly memorize them and then practice saying them well. Which is a way to entertain yourself, and sometimes a party trick.
posted by clew at 1:34 PM on July 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Art journaling/colouring/painting, while listening to music or sometimes an audiobook.
posted by rpfields at 3:17 PM on July 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

There are lots of books that teach drawing, sketching, etc.

I certainly agree about magazine articles. That might also help you exercise your reading muscles and get back to being able to read books you respect more. I read online so much that it can be hard for me to settle with a book, and I have to practice to get that back.

I think you might find that you could set aside several half hours a week to learn new music. Also, sing. It's pretty energizing.

Walking on summer evenings is a nice way to interact with neighbors you may encounter.
posted by theora55 at 7:10 PM on July 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Things to see on Google Maps -- Street View, clicking down the road:
Gulf of Mexico coastline of Texas (Galveston to Freeport, Port Bolivar to Beaumont). Nice homes on stilts, sometimes beachside roads right up to the surf.
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (Mandeville to Metairie). Slowly. Clicking. Across. A very long bridge just to see what is there.
Statue of Liberty Island/Liberty State Park. Take I-78 to Morris Pesin Drive, to Flag Plaza, and see Lady Liberty across the water.
Overseas Highway/US-1 (Key Largo to Key West). Take the scenic route, check out the little neighborhoods, visit Robbie's of Islamorada and the southernmost point of the U.S.A., all without parking the vehicle.

Use Google Maps -- Street View to revisit previous home towns.
There are old neighborhoods where I have lived or vacationed that are quite different, while other familiar landmarks have stayed the same. It's strange to see my old vehicles in the driveway. Stranger still to see myself talking with the postal carrier as our photos were taken for posterity.

Along the same lines, check out coastal live webcams. It's very nice to catch the scene at dusk and dawn, and interesting to see storms come in.
I am partial to Galveston, TX, and Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
posted by TrishaU at 11:57 PM on July 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

I got diagnosed with really bad dry eye due to way too much screentime. I'm also disabled and spend a lot of time recovering from physical activity and processing trauma.

My regular nighttime ritual is using OcuScrub to scrub my lids, then spraying an electric eye mask with water so it emanates wet heat, putting it on my eyes for half an hour while listening to Spotify playlists I've made. After you take the mask off, massage your eyelid gently with the side of your index finger so you can redistribute the Meibomian gland oil to your eyes. This is a routine my optometrist prescribed to me (minus the Spotify playlist.) It's very freeing to enjoy not staring at a screen, and to know it's good for your health! Resting and lying down feels great when you really allow yourself to, and it helps you relax and recalibrate.

dreamscape <- this is a very nice playlist I've been working on recently, I've been seeding it with ECM neoclassical and contemporary piano and jazz pieces, and the Spotify radio after I finish using it is really nice. ECM albums are also made to be listen to whole, and there are tons of really nice jazz and classical albums on Youtube that are fun to listen to.
posted by yueliang at 8:51 PM on July 26, 2022 [6 favorites]

I forgot to mention -- after I scrub my eyelids with OcuScrub, I use Refresh eyedrops to help moisten my eyes and then proceed with the rest of the steps. It's a nice little ritual that always makes me feel better
posted by yueliang at 1:44 AM on July 27, 2022

Sounds like a traditional pre-internet style hobby is what you’re looking for, just need to figure out what will keep you engaged

Things that spring to mind:
Jigsaw puzzles
Model airplanes/trains/ships/miniature painting
Making photo albums

Basically I would look for something that is not too complicated, can be broken down into repeatable projects and is somewhat mindless but requires enough brain power that you’ll recognize when you’re ready to stop and get to bed.
posted by 12%juicepulp at 10:00 PM on July 27, 2022

Nudism. VERY relaxing.

Or so I've heard.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:57 PM on July 28, 2022

Maybe learn guitar? That's what I'm currently trying while dealing with crippling depression.
posted by I_count_crows at 5:19 PM on July 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Watch birds and insects, very engaging if you let yourself get absorbed! Sitting outside staring into space - highly recommend. Especially if you have a nice cup of tea or a sparkling water or something to occasionally sip.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:45 PM on August 1, 2022

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