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.
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