The Art of Doing Nothing


The Dutch and the Italians are some of the happiest people in the world. Why? Because they have mastered the art of doing nothing. Dutch call it ‘niksen.’ Italians call it ‘dolce far niente.’ Both phrases translate as the same philosophy – the pleasantness of being idle, or the sweetness of doing nothing. It is not laziness, I assure you. It is simply the enjoyment of being, and that my friends, is the secret to life.


I was feeling stressed recently sitting at my computer trying to be creative and productive, but I ended up procrastinating by scanning numerous websites that led me nowhere. Frustrated, I got up from my desk and made my way to the couch where I lay down and stared out the window. I did nothing but look at the trees. I suppose I was waiting for inspiration, but I also needed to rest my eyes from staring at so many useless websites. Something interesting began to happen as my gaze took me outside to the grass. I imagined kangaroos hopping by my window. I’ve been seeing lots of animals in my yard lately, but I’ve never seen a kangaroo. I know this is impossible, since I don’t live in Australia, but my mind made it possible, and it was a pleasant daydream that delighted me because it reminded me of travel and of childhood. I might have dozed off listening to the soothing sound of cicadas, imagining monkeys swinging from the branches, but when I woke, the title of this article came to mind. It was an epiphany which led me to researching this necessary practice in the Netherlands.


Niksen is the act of doing nothing on purpose, and the Dutch do it well. In fact, the practice has helped in ranking them as being one of the happiest groups of people on the planet. Most of us feel guilty about doing nothing. Even while on vacation, we tend to plan every minute of our day doing multiple activities to get our money’s worth, rather than resting or relaxing, which is what vacations are for. We feel this constant pressure to accomplish something if we find ourselves with free time. We should be doing laundry, we tell ourselves. We could be binge-watching our favorite episodes. We are addicted to checking our phones every sixty seconds scanning updates of our friends’ pages where they glorify their busy schedules. But the Dutch have learned to unwind. They sit and gaze and daydream and disconnect and zone out. Why is this important? Because it clears space in the mind for creativity. That’s when kangaroos hop by your window.


The Italians appear to be even better at it. They don’t overwork or over schedule. They enjoy pausing throughout each day to sit in the sun and eat a gelato. They carve out time to do nothing and savor the moment. They may meet a friend for a coffee, but with no agenda, such as turning the meeting into a business or brainstorming session. With the absence of a goal, they simply enjoy the sheer pleasure of drinking a coffee and sitting beside someone as they watch the world go by.


Do you want to reduce anxiety, be more creative, have better relationships and become happier? Then learn the art of doing nothing. Doing nothing makes us calmer. It helps us declutter the mind so we have room for inspiration to enter. The best ideas can come to us while being unproductive. If we don’t learn to switch off our minds, we are not allowing the brain to wander. It will be challenging to do nothing at first. You will probably want to check your phone multiple times, or remember that you could be using this down time to do something else. But it is necessary for your mental and physical health to slow down, take a break, and do absolutely nothing. Try doing nothing for ten minutes, then work your way up to half an hour. The Italians schedule a solid hour each day, but usually take even more time, because stress doesn’t go well with a slice of pizza or an espresso at an outdoor café.


Embrace the practice of doing nothing and watch how your life will improve in more ways than you can imagine.