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Introducing ‘niksen’, the Dutch philosophy of doing nothing set to change the way you relax and recharge.

The Danish introduced us to ‘hygge’, a feeling of cosy contentment that promotes enjoyment in the simple things in life. From Sweden, we borrowed ‘lagom’, the moderation philosophy that’s all about finding balance. And now, from the Netherlands direct to your iso-life, there’s ‘niksen’: the art of doing absolutely nothing. Niksen promises to help you de-stress, relax and recharge. It’s as simple as lazing in bed, staring out the window or listening to music – without any purpose whatsoever. 

Twiddling your thumbs

Niksen is “to idle, to lounge around, to sit around … to hang about, to do nothing much, to stand around”, writes Carolien Janssen in Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. People watching at the park, laying on a deck chair in the backyard, daydreaming and literally watching paint dry all fit the bill.

Importantly, doing nothing the Dutch way means there’s no purpose or end goal, no self-improvement, ambition or sense of achievement. Niksen is gloriously unproductive and indulgent. It’s not about using extra time at home during the Covid-19 pandemic to clean out your linen closet or learn to bake cinnamon scrolls – or feeling guilty because you haven’t ticked the jobs off your to-do list. 

“There’s much to be said for doing nothing without any goal or structure – to just be and to just allow whatever happens to happen,” says Dr Timothy Sharp, founder of The Happiness Institute. “Too many of us are so focused on always being constructive and productive that we’ve lost the art of doing nothing.”

Whereas mindfulness focuses on being in the moment, niksen is more flexible, says clinical psychologist Dr Joyce Chong from The Skill Collective. “Mindfulness has an emphasis on being present in the here and now, whereas niksen does not have such temporal constraints,” she says. “If your mind wanders, you can follow it down that rabbit hole rather than bringing it back to the present moment as you would be encouraged to in mindfulness.”

Healthy mind

Research shows detaching from the day-to-day and spending time in simple reflection and contemplation are essential to health and personal growth. There’s even evidence to suggest that doing nothing is crucial for innovation and creativity, and that inactivity might spark new insights. Have most of your great ideas when you’re staring out the window or in the shower? This is why doing nothing is just as important to wellbeing – and, conversely, productivity – as doing something. 

“What might appear to be doing nothing is, more often than not, reflection and contemplation, and in some ways a form of meditation,” says Dr Sharp. “And we know from much research that these all lead to fewer negative emotions such as stress and anxiety, as well as more positive emotions such as happiness and calm. Taking time out from busyness can also aid creativity and problem solving, as well as clarity of thought and decision making.”

He says we can’t be on all the time, and when we try to be, we just end up exhausted, burnt out and unproductive. “The happiest and most successful people, including elite athletes and sportspeople, recognise the need to rest, recover and recuperate,” says Dr Sharp. “And notably, they also recognise that this time spent being ‘off’ ultimately allows them to be better ‘on’ when they need or want to be.”

A difficult balance

The trouble is, of course, that life is busy, whether you’re doing long days in the office or juggling working from home with home schooling during a global pandemic. Which means that niksen is more important for our wellbeing than ever – and more difficult to achieve.  

“As we remain busy and alert, more neural connections are formed through functional parts of our brains that impact on stress and emotional regulation,” says Mandy Taylor, director of clinical services at the Cairnmillar Institute. 

This can result in what psychologists call ‘emotional hyperactivity’, which makes it harder to find time for rest and memory processing. “The visible impact of this is an increase in anxiety and changes in mood,” says Taylor.

When we try to offset this with healthful activities like exercise or other hobbies, it’s easy –and, indeed, acceptable – to instead focus on goals and achievement, which Taylor says can reinforce emotional hyperactivity. 

Niksen in action 

So how do you go from doing lots of things to doing nothing much at all? The most important thing to understand about niksen is that it takes practice. 

“If you’re a particularly active person who likes to move things along and keep things happening at a fast pace, accept that doing nothing is going to be something that’s uncomfortable for you,” says clinical psychologist Dr Glen Hosking, a lecturer in psychology at Victoria University.  

“It’s about resisting the urge to go back to those old familiar patterns of doing things. Accept that it’s going to take time to adjust. Normally people become much better at being able to do less if they gradually increase the amount of time they are engaging in the behaviour.”

To help you adjust, Dr Chong suggests doing nothing in a location you don’t associate with productivity. “Sit in your backyard or balcony, rather than at your desk, and leave your phone somewhere you won’t notice it,” she says. “When doing nothing in these new surroundings becomes easier, you can then practice niksen in locations that you traditionally associate with being productive.”

Taylor recommends consciously setting aside expectations of achievement. “Remind yourself this is caring for your neurobiology,” she says. “We all have different forms of achievement guilt, and our cultures often do not value space to recharge or space to self care. Remind yourself that this practice will actually improve performance in times when you are busy and increase the sustainability of a busy lifestyle. 

“While we focus on times of not having a purpose, niksen has a clear purpose.”