Learn why the Dutch art of doing nothing is something every American can benefit from.

By Zee Krstic
July 19, 2019
Woman Sitting on Rock Outside on the Beach
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

More and more professionals are making the case that it's important to spend time doing, well, nothing at all. Since Americans are consistently stressed out-more than 44 percent often feel burnt out, according to a recent survey-experts are pulling inspiration from a Dutch lifestyle concept that is just as buzzy as Denmark's "hygge," but may actually be more helpful in the long run. If you're longing for quiet time in your daily schedule but are having a hard time quieting all those voices in your head, then "niksen" may be the solution you've been looking for.

What, exactly, is niksen? "Well, it's very simple-it's just about doing nothing," says Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. who has published extensive research on the role that inactivity plays in our emotional wellbeing. Having authored The Science of Boredom, Mann has discussed niksen at great length, considering it time spent doing motionless, effortless activities like gazing out of a window and daydreaming. "There is an art to doing nothing-it's about acceptance of the moment without having to fill it with 'worthy' stuff, and recognizing that 'nothing' is worthy, too!"

The concept of niksen is a bit different from mindfulness or being present in the moment-it's truly tied to finding time in your schedule to simply sit still and let your mind roam free. Niksen is simply "sitting in a chair or looking out of the window," Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist in the Netherlands at Erasmus University Rotterdam, told Time, adding that it's a situation where people release themselves from our obsessive societal expectations about work culture and overall productivity.

Why is downtime so important?

"Believe it or not, there are many upsides to doing nothing, especially when you let your mind wander and allow daydreaming to take place. It's a strangely refreshing, relaxing process that can improve creativity and has been shown to lower stress," Mann says. She's conducted research that has suggested that regular daydreaming, in particular, is effective at boosting creativity and improve problem-solving skills overall. But you need to be totally idle and not engaged in anything around you, she says. "When we are bored, we search for neural stimulation, and if we can't find it, we create it. This can lead to daydreaming, which has been shown to enhance creativity."

Veenhoven, who is also the director of the World Database of Happiness, agrees with Mann. "Even when we 'niks,' or do nothing, our brain is still processing information and can use the available processing power to solve pending problems," he told Time. If you've ever had a breakthrough while wandering around on a walk or sitting outside, you'll know the feeling, he says.

Beyond its mental, holistic benefits, downtime can combat the physical side effects of stress and chronic burnout. Eve Elkman, director of training at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says the amount of stress being recorded at the national level is at an all-time high. Her recent research shows that slowing down and taking the time to be idle has been shown to reduce anxiety, as well as boosting overall immunity, which helps people stave off colds and illnesses. Mann says that the mental benefits, alongside these physical benefits, is too compelling to try and not factor in some time to completely unplug from the world around you.

How does one practice Niksen?

Unlike hygge, or the act of becoming cozy at home, you don't need to purchase anything or secure anything to engage in some downtime. The key to actually reaping any benefits of downtime is making sure you're not tempted to interrupt yourself with media or other distractions-niksen isn't about binging an entire television series or getting through a pile of books you've been meaning to read. It's okay to be bored, Mann says.

"Do what I do! I switch off all of my devices regularly-I have a digital detox day when I cannot swipe and scroll my boredom away," Mann says. "I also stare out of the window when I'm on a train, or sit and stare into the clouds when I'm in a park. I walk and let my mind wander."

Practicing niksen can counterintuitively provide a challenge for those who simply can't bear to leave possessions behind and forget daily agendas. Mann says it's key to push yourself, though: seek an environment where temptation is avoided, and the only goal in your mind's eye should be spending time doing absolutely nothing related to your life at the moment. Start slow and steady, and don't expect to be clearing your mind for 30 minutes at a time when you first begin-it's about building up your tolerance to be idle, and even if you can only get in a few minutes every day, you'll find yourself reaping the holistic rewards sooner than later.


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