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The benefits of doing nothing — from stress relief to having more creative ideas

HONG KONG — Some people baked banana bread. Others tried their hand at sourdough. Then the trick of whisking instant coffee into froth exploded onto the scene.

The benefits of doing nothing — from stress relief to having more creative ideas

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, some people were happy to purposefully do nothing.

HONG KONG — Some people baked banana bread. Others tried their hand at sourdough. Then the trick of whisking instant coffee into froth exploded onto the scene.

Do-it-yourself projects became trendy. Tie-dye shirts coloured social media posts. Zoom meetings — for work, to meet family and friends, and to have parties — became the norm.

The year of the pandemic had people turning into everyday ninjas. But not everyone wanted their day ruled by the pings of their Google calendar. Some were happy to purposefully do nothing. Or, as the Dutch say, niksen.

A verb that literally means “doing nothing” or “being idle”, or “doing something that is of no use”, niksen has been around for some time. Now, with life all topsy-turvy and concerns mounting over mental health owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been increasing interest in dialling down and stepping off the treadmill.

Renewed conversations around the concept were sparked by the release in October last year of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing by Netherlands-based Polish journalist and writer Olga Mecking.

Ms Mecking says the idea for the book came from reading an article in a Dutch wellness magazine called Gezond Nu (Healthy Now), which said “niksen is the new mindfulness”.

“I thought, ‘Yes, finally, an article that tells us it’s okay to do nothing’,” she says.

“Especially with other wellness trends telling us we’re never enough, that no matter what we do we should always do more, whether it’s at work, at home, with our children. Niksen seemed like a great antidote to all that. When I read that article, I thought, ‘That’s a great story. I should write about this.’ So I did.”

The book was published in English by Piatkus, part of the United States-based Little, Brown and Company publishing group, and soon Dutch, French, Polish and Russian versions were available. It is due to be translated and released in 10 more languages.

“When one is down, stressed with work or exhausted from day-to-day stress and anxiety, especially for people working from home, doing nothing is an excellent way of psychological detoxing,” says Dr Simantini Ghosh, an assistant professor of psychology at India’s Ashoka University. “You just want to take a break from doing anything. In psychological terms, this is called decision avoidance.”

Not all mental health experts see the benefits of niksen, however.

Dr Christopher Anderson from the University of Maryland in the US wrote in a 2003 paper about “why individuals avoid decisions by postponing them, failing to act, or accepting the status quo”.

This decision avoidance is common, he wrote, and described it as “troubling behaviour”. The paper was published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin.

Ms Mecking sees it differently. “Our brains are always active,” she says.

“When the neuroscientist Marcus Raichle put people in fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines and told them to do nothing, their brain activity increased compared with people who were given a task. A lot of the time, our thoughts racing is seen as a bad thing. But this way, our thoughts bumping into each other lead to other, more interesting thoughts, which lead to really cool ideas sometimes.”

She makes the distinction between different ways of doing nothing.

“The way I define niksen in the book is ‘doing nothing without a purpose’,” she says. “So it is not, for example, browsing Facebook or watching a movie on Netflix, but looking at clouds, watching people. And to do it not because we hope to get something out of it, but to do it just because… I think that’s possible.”

Dr Ghosh says a critical part of well-being is to be able to disengage from things that stress us.

“These days, we are always wired in,” she says. “It is almost incomprehensible to think about a time when we were not checking our email every 10 minutes. Or not being able to keep up with what’s been happening on any front. While these are all good things, too much engagement also leads to a lot of stress and anxiety.”

The concept of doing nothing has engaged philosophers and thinkers across the world for millennia. Greek philosopher Parmenides pondered the idea in the fifth-century BC; the Taoist concept of wu wei, “doing nothing”, emerged around the same time. Ever since, “nothing” and “inaction” have been the subject of intense debate.

Ms Mecking says doing nothing has real benefits.

“I found evidence that there are positive sides to things like laziness, boredom and even procrastination,” she adds. “Research on laziness and boredom, for example, shows that when our brains don’t have anything to focus on, they search for their own stimulation and come up with more creative ideas.”

Dr Ghosh says there is proof of rejuvenation when one shuts down, and many wellness programmes are based on the philosophy of benefit from disengagement, such as retreats, which place an emphasis on stepping back from everything.

“In fact, this kind of logic is the basis for almost all kinds of programmes, whether for de-addiction, stress relief or writing workshops at creative retreats for artists,” she says.

Some wonder exactly how they should plan to do nothing.

“There are two main ways,” Ms Mecking says.

“One is to schedule it. Write it down in your agenda. After all, you write down the most important things, so why not breaks? Why not leisure time? Why not doing nothing? These things are important, too.”

Second, it is also possible to choose random moments, she says. These include, for example, time waiting for a doctor’s appointment, on a train, or at a cafe waiting for a friend to arrive. These are all great moments for niksen.

If doing nothing is difficult, she suggests keeping the hands busy with crocheting, colouring or playing blocks, so the mind can wander and run free. She also suggests ditching technology and finding a pleasant nook to sit in quietly to do nothing.

To emphasise the value of decluttering the mind and ushering in some quietness, India’s Centre for Learning, a school offering community-based learning, has tried to inculcate the practice at a young age.

While most schools cram school days with lessons and activities, the centre schedules a 45-minute period of “quiet time” for all its students and teachers every evening. There is no talking, no reading, no watching or listening to anything; in essence, no engagement with anything tangible. It is simply do-nothing time.

“External silence amplifies the inner noise. We want everyone to watch this without judgment,” says Dr Kamala Mukunda, a long-time teacher at the centre, which is on the outskirts of the bustling city of Bangalore. The school’s sprawling campus has an abundance of wilderness and students are free to wander in it during this time.

“Being quiet and doing nothing is not easy,” Dr Mukunda says. “But, slowly, one begins to notice other things — warmth of the sun, feel of the wind, sounds of nature. The discomfort falls away and relaxes the body and mind. Even children who resist it a lot seem to turn to it at some point.” SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST  

Related topics

mental health health stress Covid-19 coronavirus

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