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Relaxed woman sitting on cloud in her home daydreaming about love, travel, reading, and chores

The Case for Doing Nothing

“The trouble with people nowadays is they don’t know how to do nothing.” ―Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head, 1961

I recently read an interesting article in the New York Times, “The Case for Doing Nothing,” which explains the philosophy or practice of “niksen,” the Dutch art of doing nothing. Doing nothing? Being idle, daydreaming, relaxing, making a point to do nothing–without expectations, an agenda, or an end goal. In other words, giving yourself permission to simply relax and hang out without being busy or productive.

Productivity is ingrained in our society

It’s not so easy to just “do nothing,” however. Busyness and productivity are deeply ingrained in our society and culture as positive–crucial even–traits to embrace and practice. We’re always on the go, and we live our lives feeling like we constantly need to be doing something, going somewhere, and getting something done.

Busyness as a projection of status

According to the New York Times article, “Running from place to place and laboring over long to-do lists have increasingly become ways to communicate status: I’m so busy because I’m just so important, the thinking goes.” Not keeping busy or being “productive” invariably has connotations of being lazy, weak, and not as worthwhile.

But is all of this busyness and constant need for productivity good for us? Probably not.

The negative impact of busyness

The article points out that living a life ruled by busyness can lead to serious and negative consequences if we’re not careful, citing that “instances of burnout, anxiety disorders and stress-related diseases are on the rise.”

The way off of this dizzying hamster wheel is not by doing more things, even if positive, the article argues. No yoga, no special diets, no exercise plans, no meditation, no mindfulness exercises. Shove all of your inspirational Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert books under your bed, too.

Do nothing–says the article, says niksen. 

The simplicity of niksen

How do you do nothing? What’s this niksen thing again? A recent article in The Guardian describes it as: “an increasingly popular Dutch relaxation technique where you relinquish control and just … stop. When thoughts occur, you don’t interrogate them or imagine them being carried away on balloons, you just let them occur. At a time when meditative practices can feel like yet another thing to do, niksen is liberatingly simple. Stop doing everything right now. It is essentially sanctioned daydreaming.”

But I have so many things to do

Daydreaming sounds nice, and I’m pretty good at it, but how can I do nothing? I have so many things to do! Emails to check and reply to, bills to pay, laundry to wash, cleaning to finish, projects to work on, money to earn (WORK!), and the list goes on and on. PLUS, I NEED MY PHONE!

No you don’t, says niksen. Throw your phone in a drawer. Turn off the TV, the laptop, and your brain. Then do nothing. Even if just for 10 minutes.

Niksen = happiness?

Fun fact: the Netherlands is the 5th happiest country in the world, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2019. This is the highest position ever for the Netherlands on the list of the happiest countries. So they must know what they’re talking about, right? Is niksen part of the reason?

Are we as happy as we should be?

Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland occupy the first four places, interestingly. What about the land of “The American Dream?” We’re sitting unhappily at position #19. Or maybe I should say we’re busy running around like maniacs and slurping gallons of caffeinated beverages and screaming road rage out of our car windows at number 19.

We’re not in last place (South Sudan), but we’re certainly not in the top five. Are we happy? No! Not as much as we should be, I’d argue. We’re too damn busy, working ourselves to exhaustion and forcing ourselves to do things out of obligation rather than enjoyment and genuine fulfillment.

Feeling guilty about not being busy

This “doing nothing business” sounds easy when I write about it here, telling myself to toss my phone aside and just chill out. However, after I finish typing this up on my laptop, I highly doubt I’m going to head off to sit in the grass and stare at the sky and do absolutely nothing. I wish I could, but I can’t. I can’t without feeling guilty, that is. Even when I know and understand the real health benefits of slowing down and not being so busy, such as: improved mental and emotional health, improved physical health, better productivity, and increased creativity–the guilt still creeps in.

Guilt can be a very strong emotion to tackle when it heavily descends upon you like a big black cloud. It’s why I have such a hard time practicing self-care, because I always feel like I should be doing something else. That I’m always running behind.

Rheumatoid arthritis and productivity

The unpredictable nature of RA only adds to the anxiety and stress I feel about productivity and what I’m getting done in my life. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone, I’d argue, to “get their sh*t together.” And just because you have RA and chronic pain, you’re not exempt from that obligation.

Different standards of productivity

I hardly ever let myself be free from society’s expectations (including those of family, friends, coworkers, etc.), despite knowing that I should probably be a bit kinder to myself. Being “productive” and “busy” as a person with RA who lives with indescribable pain every day cannot compare with the productivity of a healthy, able-bodied person. The standards should not be the same. But they often are, which I think can be attributed to the “invisible” aspect of RA and other chronic illnesses. If you look fine and normal on the outside, then you absolutely should be working hard, staying busy, and getting things done–the unwritten rule states. I feel the stress and anxiety of this “rule” every day. But I don’t agree with it.

Try practicing niksen

Taking a few moments to pause and sit quietly, or stretch out in the grass in the sunshine, or to close your eyes and just exist for a minute–this can make a person feel a lot calmer and better. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to feel better and be better. I’m open to try out a bit of this niksen stuff, and to kick my guilt under the bed, in the hope that it will not only improve my mental health, but that it can help my RA, too.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Mary Sophia Hawks moderator
    3 months ago

    Angela, great article! Shortly before I was diagnosed with RA/RD, I had a severe flare of my fibromyalgia. I ended up on short-term disability for 4 months. During that time, I was unable to do much besides get my sons to school. Getting in and out of bed took all my strength.
    During this time, I learned the value of doing nothing and caring for self. This is so contradictory to our American culture, yet vitally important in our RA battle. As I sit on my couch with my legs elevated after work, I contemplate the dust rabbits and clutter. Occasionally, I am able to get the vacuum and take care of it. But I no longer allow it to run my life. I simply can’t.
    I’ve taught my friends this simple truth: If you’re coming to see me, come on over. If you’re coming to see the house, make an appointment.
    I’ve learned that by allowing myself rest, I have fewer bad days.
    May you learn to let other’s expectations go. Revisit your own expectations and adjust accordingly.
    Mary Sophia Hawks, moderator/author

  • NPEOttawa
    3 months ago

    I understand how this technic can be hard to do. This is something that helped me when my daughter was a teen-ager and I was trying to stop worrying all the time when she was out. I told myself that I could worry, but not until a specific time. If she was expected back by midnite, I would tell myself that I was not allowed to worry until 12:30. Then, when the thoughts cropped up, I would would tell myself, “No, it’s not time to worry yet.” It took some practice to make a habit of it, but it worked well for me. Perhaps it might work for guilt as well, as in, “OK, I am not allowed to feel guilty until after 10 minutes of niksen…”

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    3 months ago

    @angela AN interesting philosophy, I love it. Now we can say if we don’t do stuff with RA we are doing Niksen! Perfect. Love it. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Leanne Donaldson moderator
    3 months ago

    It reminds me of what my children do so easily and readily- nothing. Yet, I begrudge them it all of the time- get up! do something!
    Perhaps we would all be better if we take a page out of their book for once. It reminds me of the excerpt from Winnie the Pooh, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”
    Perfectly applicable to life with RA. Take care of yourself. -Leanne, Moderator

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    3 months ago

    I tired Angela, but I got board and decided to do something about it. Turns out that really sunk my do nothing spirit.

    I doubt niksen is in my DNA. However, Sheryl is very good at it.

  • Cynthia Ventura moderator
    3 months ago

    What a wonderful concept, daydreaming. I can pinpoint the last time I actually did so as being when I was in tenth grade and my Pre-Calc instructor was droning on and on about Inverse Functions–yawn. No offense intended to Pre-Calc instructors but in the US the value of daydreams and just doing nothing is an alien concept.

    I was once employed by a company whose corporate headquarters was located in Maidenhead, England. We worked well together, “across the pond” but the Brits could never understand Americans’ need for constant late hours, bringing work home and working on weekends. We could never understand their fluid workday or their four weeks of time off, though we envied it.

    I like this concept of Niksen. It’s something we in the RA community should be practicing. Most of us have learned that pushing too hard has dire consequences. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel the guilt and anxiety you mention when pursing the self-care we so need.

    Just as any positive changes we make, it takes a desire and an awareness of our needs despite ingrained judgmental backtalk to get to a place where we can begin to step back from our busyness and learn to care for ourselves.

    Thanks Angela for researching and writing about such a dynamic but simple concept. Now I’m off to do some Niksening.

    CynthiaV, Moderator Team

  • Angela Lundberg author
    3 months ago

    Hi Cynthia! Thank you for reading my article and for your wonderful comments. You’re spot-on with everything you said! I’ve lived across-the-pond a few times and you’re right about cultural differences regarding work, busyness, etc. I think it’s just another reason to make me get myself back over to Europe, right? 🙂

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