André Spicer, a professor of organizational behavior, wrote (aeon.co/essays/do-we-all-need-a-little-time-simply-to-sit-and-think) about a time that he set up a deckchair in venues around London and invited people to take a few moments to sit and think. One of the people who asked him what he was doing was a business man. When André replied that he was thinking, the businessman said, “I don’t have time for that.”
Most people are caught up in the culture of materialism and fear of missing out. They “hustle” to buy more “stuff” they do not need to impress people they do not know. Or they post images on social media that are not reflective of their real lives (put out false images of their life) in order to make themselves think they are glamorous.
There’s a Twitter screenshot that regularly gets shared on social media. It’s an imaginary conversation that goes:
“What are you doing tonight?”
“So are you going to come out?”
“You don’t understand, I’m doing NOTHING.”
Why does this screenshot resonate with so many people and is so controversial? Because the idea of not doing some kind of productive activity at all times has become strange. Because doing nothing sounds bizarre, concerning, or somehow wasteful. Because people forget how good it can be, in particular for your mental health, to do nothing.
If you Google the Dutch word “niksen” you’ll find lots of articles comparing it to hygge, the Danish approach to life that involves creating cozy comfort. But while hygge is recognized as a positive life hack, niksen has negative connotations, even in The Netherlands. The Dutch proverb “niksen is niks” can be translated as “doing nothing is good for nothing”. Of course, this is the country that gave the world the Protestant work ethic, so that’s hardly surprising. Yet some people living in today’s always-on world and world of materialism are rediscovering the benefits of doing nothing.
Americans spend, on average, 2 to 3 hours per day on social media according to reports from companies such as Hootsuite, We Are Social, Gallup and others, even though an increasing number of studies (and “hard” data points such as increasing levels of depression/anxiety) show that social media is terrible for mental health. Americans work so they can buy the latest iPhone or Galaxy phone that cost $1000 plus, which only has a slightly better camera and slightly faster processor. There are countless examples of how Americans think, usually due to what they say is “societal pressure”, that they need to be busy vs. doing nothing.
Doing nothing is a completely natural activity. Many animals spend a huge proportion of their day doing nothing: you only have to look at your cat or dog to see this. If you ask a small child what they’re doing, they might well reply, “Nothing.” It’s only exasperated grown-ups who exclaim, “You must be doing something!” Why? Why isn’t doing nothing an option?
Value the “rat race”?
Many people today value themselves according to their material possessions or how many “likes” or followers they get on social media and judge themselves by their so called “achievements”. Whether it’s the size of their house or their bank balance, the number of their Instagram or FB or social media followers or their donations to charity, their sense of self-worth is related to what they do rather than who they are. In fact, there are multiple studies that show materialism leads to unhappiness.
Of course, there are plenty of studies that demonstrate how productive activity improves your mood: doing nothing every day will rarely make you happy. But on the flip side being busy every day and every waking hour doesn’t necessarily make you happy either.
There are fewer opportunities in today’s world for doing nothing. When did you last see someone in a café sitting and having a drink without talking to someone or looking at their phone or reading a book? When was the last time you were waiting for a friend and didn’t feel the need to occupy that five minutes with some kind of activity? You need to make a decision to do “nothing”, otherwise it most likely won’t happen.
Psychologists use the term “soft fascination” to describe aspects of the world that capture attention effortlessly. This could be raindrops running down a window, trees blowing in the wind or the movements of a crowd. Soft fascination is when you look at something without focusing on any one part of it and without trying to analyze or understand it. Teachers tend to rebuke pupils who are staring out of the window at nothing in particular, but there’s good evidence (sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0272494495900012) that soft fascination is essential for helping your brain recharge.
Writers, entrepreneurs and artists will describe how inspiration comes at times when they’re not particularly thinking about anything: while taking a walk, laying in bed or sitting in the bath. It’s likely that your brain is more able to make creative connections if you’re prepared to spend time allowing your thoughts to wander. Who knows, maybe you will come up with that idea for a business. Or solution to a work or personal challenge.
Doing nothing, simply allowing your thoughts to drift or letting yourself get distracted by natural phenomena, can feel strange and threatening. But doing nothing is a natural process; it gives you a chance to challenge the assumption that your worth is based on what you produce rather than who you are, to become more creative, and to recharge your mind so that you’re ready to pay attention to your next activity or goal.