What a ‘Restorative Niche’ Is & Why You Need One

Here's how to destress and restore your energy reserves: pick up a 'restorative niche.'

A few weeks ago, a musician friend sent me a link to an “excellent” bass guitar I could buy for less than $200, taxes and shipping included. That’s a good price for a good bass, but an absolute banger for a great one.

It’s been a long time since I rock-and-rolled, and I don’t need to relive the glory days of my undistinguished career, but I would love to play the bass again — even if at nothing more than a homemade hootenanny on my front porch.

But I haven’t bought it. Not yet. In fact, I’ve only clicked on that link for the first time just now because I’m contemplating joy and flow and those pursuits, like playing music, that magically dip us into purer, cooler, existential waters.

It used to be that playing two 10-song sets and an encore at beer-soaked B-school parties was the ideal counterweight to the stress of classes and work. Now that I’m well on my way to navigating adult life, when I need to release, to immerse myself in something totally unrelated to my professional cares and family responsibilities, I read books, walk the neighborhood, tinker with my fantasy baseball lineup.

I didn’t know until recently, but well-being researchers and personality psychologists have a term for what I’m after but don’t think I’ve yet found — it’s “restorative niche.” Paraphrasing a popular, TED-talk giving Harvard psychologist, it’s those things we do to nurture our natures.

The problem with my short reading bursts (three minutes in the bathroom here, five minutes before bedtime-blackout there), my late-night walks (which leave me too much headspace to obsess over the very workaday angsts I want to slip), and my sport-stat noodling (more time on the laptop) is that they don’t get me what said Ivy League sage and his peers generally agree that I need. Call it joy, call it flow, call it personal re-creation, adult playtime, whatever, I don’t often reach it — or obtain its promised benefits the way I did onstage with The Outpatients or Frisbee Dog (always hated that name) a few years later.

Maybe that’s my heart saying something to me? It’s easy to dismiss what I’m talking about as hobbies, mere frivolities, kid stuff. But as Matt Bloom, a noted University of Notre Dame scholar of workplace well-being, writes: “Restorative niches are not frivolous. Indeed, they may be among the best ways to overcome burnout and boost overall well-being.”

In other words, while my restorative niche is probably not yours, we both should make it a priority, something we rate as highly as other obligations and commitments as we map out the day, the week, the month ahead.

So, what is it?

Maybe 10 years ago, that Harvard professor, Brian Little, coined the term “restorative niche” simply to describe that time we take, that thing we do, that place we go to recharge ourselves.

For Little — somewhat famously since he was showcased in author Susan Cain’s bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — “restorative niche” means retreating to a men’s room stall during lecture breaks, pulling up his feet so no one can find him, and rebuilding that inner peace and energy that his lecture-performance extraversion has flushed out of his introverted nature. His mental and emotional, er, tank refilled, Little can return to the classroom ready to teach, tell funny stories and connect with other human beings.

You might similarly imagine an extraverted student seeking out barroom conversation after an eye-straining afternoon in a study carrel. Or (Little’s example) an agreeable office manager needing an hour free from bitterness and cynicism after dealing with disgruntled employees and clients all day. A restorative niche is how we compensate ourselves for the costs of those necessary but unpleasant-for-us activities we all undertake in the name of important personal projects or other greater goods, but which so often force us, as Little says, “to act out of character.”

Bloom takes the concept one step further. In analyzing hundreds of interviews with teachers, doctors, humanitarian workers, and ministers — professional helpers and healers — Bloom and his colleagues in the Wellbeing at Work project use the term to describe activities that require our “mastery, concentration, and effort,” and that we enjoy immensely. Think Sherlock Holmes on his violin, or even Michael Scott’s improvisational “comedy.”

In my experience, artisans and other creatives tend to be good at restoring themselves. I recently visited a pipe-organ workshop, where the work is hands-on and requires great skill — but a single project can take years, daily progress is incremental, and parts-making can be repetitive and tedious. There, I met Greg, who flies gliders on weekends; Andreas, who races mountain bikes; Raphi, an accomplished mountain climber; and Ben, who plays trombone in a Major League Soccer team’s pep band.

Have you ever cooked, painted, watched birds, written a poem, plunked on a piano, grown something you’ve eaten, or raised goats for sale? Did you like it? That may be your niche. Can’t think of anything that suits you? Pick a pool (so to speak), jump in it, and splash around. If you find yourself metaphorically twirling through the water and trying out some new strokes, you’re there. Keep going. And dive back in at least once a week.

The psychology is common sense and straightforward, but the supporting evidence is more than intuitive or anecdotal. Research bears it out. Bloom’s team found “very positive” benefits in overcoming burnout, alleviating stress, and reducing physical and mental fatigue. Sleep may be paramount, but a restorative niche seems to be at least as effective as journaling, stress-management techniques, and meditation — if you keep up with it. Unfortunately, only one in four of the pastors Bloom’s team interviewed participated in one, and most reported touching it maybe every other week. “However,” they wrote, “the few pastors who regularly engaged in their restorative niche (regularly means at least once a week) were among those that reported the very highest levels of flourishing.”

We know another word for this: enthusiasm. I learned this from a wise priest who was then the principal of a highly regarded school for disadvantaged boys. He explained that “enthusiasm” has Greek roots — en, for “in,” and theos, for “God.” His point? The things we love, provided they’re not bad in themselves, are akin to divine inspiration. Our hearts speak to us. Might that not be God?

In Chariots of Fire, Jenny Liddell wants her brother, the Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell, to quit the foolishness and take up his calling as a Presbyterian minister. Eric responds that he believes God has made him for preaching the Gospel. “But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give that up would be to hold him in contempt.”

I think I just talked myself into making a major purchase.

A restorative niche is one way for how to destress: "Restorative niches are not frivolous. Indeed, they may be among the best ways to overcome burnout and boost overall well-being."

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