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Why Doing Nothing Is Good For You
We are both writers and creatives, and right now, we both struggle immensely in our everyday lives.
Ruth is recovering from knee surgery and feels isolated and fatigued. Olga is restless and exhausted by the war in Ukraine, where she has family connections. Our go-to coping strategies—Ruth’s walks in nature, Olga’s bicycle rides—became less restorative and started to feel like obligatory tasks to perform. So we decided to do nothing.
There are countless books and articles about silence, doing nothing, or simplifying your life. Among wellness trends from outside the U.S. were the Danish tradition of hygge (chosen for the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year shortlist in 2016) and the Japanese ikigai (which can be understood as “finding your purpose”). Recently, we have encountered the Dutch term niksen, and one of us even wrote a book about it.
Niksen, a Dutch verb meaning “to do nothing,” is a practice of just being, and can be understood as one way to get some rest. It is watching clouds pass by, not scrolling through Facebook. It is letting your mind wander, instead of reading emails or even making plans for the future. Purposelessness is an important aspect of niksen. Niksen, therefore, is doing nothing despite the health, productivity, and creativity benefits of rest and leisure—not because of them.
Admittedly, this definition is somewhat nebulous and deceptively simple. It does not prescribe a specific activity or method, only purposelessness—and when does doing nothing become doing something, anyway? It also does not speak to the myriad interconnected personal, cultural, economic, and political factors that determine the extent to which people can “niks.”
In many modern societies, every minute has to be accounted for, spent in productive pursuits. Even leisure has turned into effortful—and expensive—self-care. The simplest of pleasures have been subsumed into quantifiable goals. We no longer eat food because it tastes delicious, we do it because it’s healthy. We no longer go for walks simply because it feels good, deep inside our bodies. We do it because we want to cross 10,000 steps off our to-do lists.
Why, then, do we feel like we have to be productive at all times? If rest is so important, why is it so elusive?
Even in the Netherlands, a country with a generous social support system, people have been complaining of burnout and overwork. During the pandemic, schools and daycares were closed for weeks, making this crucial part of Dutch society hard to access. Olga is a mother, and homeschooling three children with different abilities was incredibly hard. Even then, Olga managed to carve out time to do nothing. Because her husband also worked from home, she has found that in many cases, she actually had more freedom than she had before the pandemic when her husband worked long hours at the office and Olga had to be home to welcome the children when they came back from school.
Leisure as a Human Right
Article 24 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Rest and leisure aren’t actually defined in the UDHR, but time off work helps create more space for both, as well as doing nothing.
Yet too many people see these rights—and, consequently, niksen—as privileges that some people just have, some work for and earn, and still others should not be allowed to enjoy. According to the Protestant work ethic prevalent in North America and parts of Europe, hard work and productivity are the basis of being a good, moral person. Research shows that these societies also tend to be more individualistic than collectivist and have a more rigid relationship with time than other cultures, which also has implications for who is able to niks.
These racial and socioeconomic distinctions of who is “worthy” or “allowed” to do nothing are a global phenomenon. Ingrained stereotypes, media messaging, and government and workplace policies illuminate and reproduce this hierarchy.
First, there is a big difference between how men’s and women’s leisure time is perceived. Research confirms that women around the world spend two to 10 times as much time as men do performing unpaid work, including caring for children. They also have less leisure time compared with their male counterparts, and constantly felt stressed out and rushed because they also more often multitasked.
Even positive stereotypes make it harder to do nothing, particularly for people with intersecting marginalized identities. Second-wave feminists and millennial “girlbosses” have perpetuated the idea that women “can have it all”—career, family, and a smokin’ hot sex life. Studies show that the pressure to be a “Strong Black Woman,” naturally strong, resilient, and self-sacrificing, increases stress and decreases mental health for Black women. The “model minority”myth of relentlessly hardworking and high-achieving Asian Americans presents similar mental health risks for this demographic, according to a study partially funded by the Asian American Health Initiative. Doing nothing is not only antithetical to the attitudes and values inherent to these gendered and racialized stereotypes; the expectations of those stereotypes also rob people trying to embody them of time they could use to niks.
Even White immigrants within Europe are not immune to stereotypes. In 2018, Dutch media reported on the so-called “Polish fraud,” accusing the Eastern European agricultural workers of living off Dutch unemployment benefits, even though the real scandal was that temporary job agencies were taking advantage of this underpaid and overexploited population.
The United States’ lack of a robust social safety net makes niksen a pipe dream for most workers there. As Anne Helen Petersen, author of the Culture Study newsletter on Substack, wrote, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” It’s the only developed country without mandated parental leave, and no federal law requires employers to offer paid sick days, both of which disproportionately affect women and people of color.
A study by UN Women found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, American women spent around 31 hours per week on child care (compared with around three hours per week for men). But all women did less paid work, focusing more on unpaid, invisible labor, such as cooking or taking care of the house—making some researchers call it a “shecession,” or a recession that disproportionately impacted women because of existing distribution of child care.
The Benefits of Doing Nothing
Despite the many obstacles to niksen, people all over the world have a term for it. In Olga’s native Polish, it’s “lying down with your belly up,” while the Germans call it “letting your soul dangle.” The romantic French flaneur wanders around aimlessly, the British enjoy “idling,”and even Americans sometimes enjoy a “lazy Sunday afternoon.” In Swahili, starehe means being “comfortably contented,” like basking in the sun doing nothing, and the Chinese tradition of wuwei can be translated as “non-action.”
The Bible may uphold the virtue of hard work, but it also prescribes a day of rest. In fact, the Polish word for Sunday, niedziela, literally means “the day when no work is done.” For Jewish communities, that day is Sabbath, which starts on Friday night and ends on Saturday evening. During that time, all work, even cooking, is forbidden. While not all Jews adhere to these strictures, many do reserve the day as a time for slowing down.
Whatever you call it, niksen has benefits for the human body and mind. It wasn’t easy to find anything on the benefits of doing nothing in particular, so we had to look at similar concepts, such as boredom. In 2014, the British researcher Sandi Mann found that being bored could increase creativity, and, as she told Olga in an interview for her book, this could extend to doing nothing.
As it turns out, the brain’s default mode network, the specific parts of the brain that light up only when we’re not engaged in a specific task, could offer a neural explanation for why we tend to get our best ideas in those unfocused moments in the shower or while on a walk, and not when we’re actively trying to solve a problem. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has found that when people were focused on a task, overall brain activity actually decreased, but this only meant that the “energy” was diverted to the parts of the brain actually needed for the task. The default mode network is a more elaborate system, connecting different parts of the brain, which might explain why it’s associated with creativity.
Paradoxically, doing nothing could also improve productivity because it allows for a better clarity of mind. Happiness and productivity expert Gretchen Rubin advocates doing nothing as a way to fight procrastination. And last but not least, the Dutch sociologist Ap Dijksterhuis has found that people made much better, more intuitive decisions when they didn’t focus on identifying the positive or negative sides of each option but instead did something completely unrelated to the task at hand.
While this isn’t exactly about niksen, it shows that the ways we think about working, focusing, and creativity might be a little off. There’s a reason why your best ideas and solutions emerge during slow and unfocused moments. These sparks of inspiration come to us in droves when we let our thoughts run free.
The Time Is Now
But increased productivity, creativity, and overall well-being are not why governments and employers should encourage protections and policies to allow more people to do more nothing.
Wellness is an industry that in 2021 was worth $1.5 trillion, and these days, wellness treatments include diets, retreats, apps, and more. According to this philosophy, which has its roots in the 1950s, it’s no longer enough for you to have a clean bill of health. By contrast, wellness is an active pursuit—a constant striving for self-improvement. The problem, however, isn’t just that many of these prescriptions aren’t scientifically valid, but also that they put the responsibility on the individuals to care for themselves, leaving us exhausted and, even worse, blaming ourselves when our health isn’t perfect. This is in line with the rampant individualism many Western societies are expecting today, which is affecting the way we see our fellow human beings by encouraging competition and weakening social ties.
Moreover, there is an insidious connection between wellness and right-wing politics and conspiracy theories. As such, wellness culture isn’t just misleading or wrong, but can actually be harmful and toxic. Not only do many “self-care” regimens feel like additional tasks, they are also insufficient to dismantle structures and policies that privilege White male knowledge workers over women, people of color, and blue-collar workers.
But rest and leisure should be a human right upheld by policymakers and employers, whether or not it can be used to generate profits for companies. The Great Resignation has demonstrated that the way we work is broken, and it underlines the need for more support for vulnerable and oppressed groups.
That support can vary for different people. For Olga, it meant her husband working from home, but most importantly, it meant having access to daycare for her children when she was a new mother. For others, support might take the form of financial security of caring for children at home. But no matter what the individual’s solution may be, we need to discharge the faux empathy of requiring people to care for themselves and their families without support, and instead create systems and spaces that allow people to do nothing.
We need to stop treating rest, niksen, dolce far niente, woolgathering, whatever you want to call it, as something we have to earn and start thinking of it as something we deserve—something we’re already worthy of. And we have to do it soon.
Olga Mecking is a writer, journalist, and occasional translator. Originally from Poland, she now lives with her German husband and three multilingual children in the Netherlands. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the BBC, among others. The US edition of her book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, was published in 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Niksen has also appeared in 15 languages and several countries around the world. When not writing or thinking about writing, Olga can be found reading books, drinking tea, and doing nothing. You can reach Olga by email: [email protected]
Ruth Terry is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey, who writes about everything from race to rollerskating.